March 24, 2009
Western officials in plot to dilute powers of President Karzai
James Bone in New York
The West is considering a plan to undermine President Karzai of Afghanistan by forcing him to install a powerful chief of staff to run the Government, diplomats say.
The proposal, being looked at by British and American officials, would leave Mr Karzai in the presidency, but reduce him to a figurehead role as “father of the nation”. Day-to-day control of the Afghan Government would pass to a chief of staff or chief executive with prime ministerial-style powers.
Possible candidates include the well-respected interior, agriculture, defence and economy ministers.
Mr Karzai, the US-backed candidate installed as President after the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taleban, has disappointed Western governments by failing to root out corruption and incompetence.
His half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, has been accused of involvement in the heroin trade — a charge that he strongly denies.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration believes that it cannot dump Mr Karzai, who is seen as likely to win re-election in August.
Instead, Western nations, who hold a summit on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31, are examining ways to transfer some of his powers to a newly appointed chief of staff.
The Afghan Constitution follows the US model of a strong presidency. The Western plan would effectively dilute that power by establishing a prime ministerial-style system — long a demand of the Afghan Opposition — but without actually creating the role of prime minister.
Diplomats concede that it would be too difficult to rewrite the Constitution to create the post of prime minister as this would require a Loya Jirga, or leaders’ assembly, that would take months of organisation.
Islamic groups could also use the occasion to push for removal of constitutional provisions on democracy and women’s rights, favoured by the West. The president must endorse all laws under the country’s Constitution, a power that it seems highly unlikely that Mr Karzai would willingly give up.
Instead prime ministerial-style powers would be exercised by a new chief of staff — a change that would not require constitutional reform.
The US and Britain have considerable leverage over Mr Karzai because of the enormous amount of aid that they funnel to Afghanistan.
There is a precedent of sorts: Mr Karzai recently designated his Commerce Minister, Hedayat Amin Arsala, as Senior Minister in his Cabinet. But Mr Arsala later stood down to run against Mr Karzai in the August elections.
Leading candidates for the new post include Hanif Atmar, the Interior Minister; Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the Agriculture Minister; Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Defence Minister, and Mohammad Jalil Shams, the Economics Minister.
Mr Atmar and Mr Rahimi in particular are considered highly capable, with Mr Atmar seen as one of the few Afghan political heavyweights who is immune to the temptations of rampant corruption in the political system.
However, there was concern in the Kabul diplomatic community last night that the new post would be seen by a sceptical Afghan public as having been dictated by the West to what is in theory a sovereign nation.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Brussels for talks with EU ambassadors, denied yesterday that the United States and its Nato allies wanted to sideline Mr Karzai.
“It doesn’t reflect any views that I am aware of in the Government I work for and it’s certainly not a universal Nato plan or anything,” he said.
In Kabul, President Karzai’s spokesman Humayun Hamidzadeh called the proposal nonsense.
The United States is also pushing to install a new deputy to the United Nations representative in Afghanistan.
Kai Eide, a Norwegian who is the top UN official in the country, has been battling behind the scenes to block the appointment of Peter Galbraith, the son of the economist J. K. Galbraith. But UN sources say that Mr Galbraith, a trusted Holbrooke ally, will be named as the No 2 UN official in Afghanistan this week.