Karzai orders Afghan parliament to suspend break

10:08am EST

By Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday ordered parliament to suspend a winter break so that it can vet and vote on new cabinet nominees after lawmakers rejected over two thirds of his original candidates.

But there may be a difficult confrontation ahead as the president plans to return some of the failed choices as candidates for different ministries, a senior official said.

Parliament dealt Karzai a painful blow on Saturday when it rejected 17 out of 24 of his nominees, casting Afghanistan into further political disarray just as the turmoil caused by last year’s fraud-marred presidential election is subsiding.

If Karzai fails to have his cabinet approved in the next few weeks he will have to head to a London conference later this month seeking extra funds from Western donors without being able to say who will control a significant chunk of them.

Parliament was due to start a six-week winter break later this week, which would have made it almost impossible for Karzai to assemble a full government in less than two months.

“President Hamid Karzai has issued a decree to parliament to refrain from going on winter leave to complete the process of voting for new cabinet members,” his palace said in a statement.

Karzai ordered the decree based on article 107 of the Afghan constitution, which allows the president to convene “extraordinary sessions of parliament during recess,” the palace said. The new cabinet will be presented for a vote of confidence “in several days,” it said.

Mohammad Karim Baaz, a deputy minister for parliamentary affairs, told Reuters the new list would most likely be presented to the lower house on Sunday, and that some of the rejected candidates would be included with new portfolios.

POLITICAL SHOWDOWN

The decree could lead to a showdown between Karzai and parliamentarians who flexed their muscles over the weekend, making full use of a rare opportunity to hold the president to account by rejecting a large swathe of his cabinet nominees.

Many parliamentarians were already fed up with Karzai’s often autocratic leadership style and tendency to ignore parliament, and by calling on the constitution to delay the winter break, Karzai is likely to arouse further anger.

While parliament will presumably have to abide by the decree, members could give the president a double blow by simply vetoing any new list, especially if Karzai does resubmit some of the old faces.

The rejected nominees included several key allies of Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban government in 2001.

Those rejected also included the only woman on the list and the powerful former energy minister, Ismail Khan, a veteran anti-Soviet commander and outspoken critic of the United States.

Like the regional commanders who threw their backing behind Karzai in the election, apparently in return for cabinet and provincial positions, the West had certain ministers it was keen to see retain their portfolios.

Several of these, in key ministries including defense, interior and finance, were endorsed by parliament.

Karzai also wants parliament to approve two new ministries, one for literacy and another for martyrs and the disabled.

RISING VIOLENCE

The latest government crisis comes when violence in Afghanistan has reached the highest level since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. Last year the number of U.S. service personnel to die in Afghanistan was more than twice that in 2008.

In the latest incidents, four U.S. troops and a British soldier were killed in two separate improvised bomb explosions in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, foreign forces said.

The four U.S. troops were the first American military casualties in Afghanistan in 2010. They were killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) strike.

A British solder from 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, also died while on foot patrol in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province on Sunday afternoon.

U.S. President Barack Obama is sending in 30,000 extra troops as part of his new war strategy, to try to turn the tide. Other NATO countries are sending some 7,000 more.

But there are already around 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and, despite the numbers, they are locked in a stalemate with the Taliban, unable to stem the rising tide of suicide and roadside bomb attacks.

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