June 20, 2002
1818 IST

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Karzai entrusts defence portfolio to pro-India Fahim

Shyam Bhatia in Kabul

One of India's staunchest friends in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim, has been confirmed in his Cabinet job with additional responsibilities as a vice-president in the new government of President Hamid Karzai.

It is a measure of his political clout that he is the only government minister to be given two concurrent jobs.

Fahim was defence minister in the outgoing government and before that a senior commander of the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban from power with the help of the United States.

It is also an open secret that for the past year Fahim, and before that his mentor the late Ahmed Shah Masoud, was the principal conduit for India's overt and covert assistance to the Northern Alliance in its struggle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

His continuing presence in the Cabinet means India's voice will continue to be heard and appreciated by a proven ally at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

Another Northern Alliance leader and fellow ethnic Tajik, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has also kept his job.

Until last year Abdullah was Masoud's translator and interpreter. An ophthalmologist by profession, Abdullah has been a regular visitor to New Delhi where he is listened to with respect.

There is uncertainty only over the future of former interior minister Younus Qanooni, the third member of the powerful Northern Alliance triumvirate that dominated the last government.

Qanooni, whose family has a house in New Delhi, volunteered his resignation last week for the sake of national unity, so that he could make way for a member of the Pushtoon community that has repeatedly complained about Tajik domination in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

His old job of interior minister has gone to the ethnic Pushtoon governor of Paktia province in Southeast Afghanistan, Taj Mohammed Wardak.

By way of compensation Qanooni has been offered the education portfolio, although it is far from clear that he will accept it.

In his speech announcing the new Cabinet on Wednesday night, Karzai told delegates to the Loya Jirga that he had tried to form a 'balanced' government.

He added, "I hope that those who could not be offered posts will forgive us. You know there are only a limited number of jobs, but there are multiple ambitions and aspirations.

"We want to form a government which can help and serve the people, ensuring security, peace and stability in Afghanistan.

"No one in any part of Afghanistan should eat in darkness. No son of Afghanistan should have to study by candlelight. No mother should worry about the health of her children and no one should have to go outside Afghanistan for treatment."

In making his appointments Karzai has tried to be fair to each of the major ethnic communities with key Cabinet jobs split 50-50 between Tajiks and Pushtoons and additional jobs allocated to the Hazara Shias, who are concentrated in Central Afghanistan in and around the former Buddhist cultural centre of Bamiyan.

Three vice-presidents have also been appointed with ethnic considerations in mind. The President himself is a Pushtoon, but Fahim is Tajik. A second vice-president, Haji Qadeer, governor of Jalalabad, is also Pushtoon and the third, Karim Khalili, is an ethnic Hazara.

Before leaving Kabul last weekend, New Delhi's visiting special envoy Satinder Lambah declared: "India has no favourites among the Afghans."

Yet the reality of the past decade is that India's best contacts have been with the Northern Alliance and in particular with the Tajiks. One other member of the Alliance, who has never been reluctant to sing India's praises is ethnic Uzbek general and former warlord Rashid Dostum.

He was deputy defence minister in the last government, but has not been given any of the key jobs in the new administration.

"Dostum said to me he wants to be a hero of peace," Karzai told the Loya Jirga last Wednesday. "He said he wants to serve in the interests of peace and fight against bloodshed and guns and work for disarmament. I hold him to that promise."

It will be the job of Indian diplomats in the months ahead to consolidate links with the Northern Alliance and build new contacts with the ethnic Pushtoons who have run Afghanistan for 250 years, firstly through the Afghan aristocracy and more recently by providing a bedrock of support to the Taliban.

Much has been made in recent months of ex-King Zahir Shah's friendly ties with India, underlined by the years of hospitality his family enjoyed when they lived in Dehradun during the earlier part of this century.

Yet it was the same Zahir Shah who extended diplomatic and political support to the late Field Marshal Ayub Khan during the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

Shah's stance at that time is remembered by some of the older foreign policy hands in New Delhi who caution against trying to use him to forge links with the Pushtoons.

For the time being the Afghan royals and their supporters are among the most bitter losers of the government reshuffle in Kabul.

Rightly or wrongly, Shah's exiled supporters now back home in Kabul accuse the Americans of double dealing by first encouraging the ex-monarch to return to his country and then deserting him at a crucial moment when he could have played himself back into the political fabric of Afghanistan.

It was the ex king's loyal subject and now Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who last week proposed making Shah constitutional president and leader of the nation.

But that proposal was opposed by the ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance, who apprehended that Shah would became the rallying point for their tribal enemies among the ethnic Pushtoons.

As the debate raged over whether Shah should have a role, the US administration, according to royal supporters, weighed in on the side of his opponents.

One royal supporter who did not want to be named blamed US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for deliberately prejudging the outcome of this particular argument by publicly announcing that the king had never sought a role for himself in government.

"The king never said he did not want a role," the supporter told "What he did say was that he wished to serve the Afghan people."

The supporter added, "The king today has more support than any other single person in the whole of Afghanistan."

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