As Holbrooke bolsters Karzai, parliament again rejects many of his cabinet picks

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 17, 2010

KABUL -- Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Saturday that it is time to "move on" from last year's fraud-marred presidential election and any lingering questions about the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's government.

But just minutes before Holbrooke met with reporters at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound here, the newly assertive Afghan parliament delivered Karzai another political setback by voting to reject more than half of his second slate of cabinet nominees.

The parliament had earlier rejected 70 percent of the president's cabinet choices, deeming many of them either too closely aligned with Afghanistan's former guerrilla commanders, or warlords, or not sufficiently qualified to lead the ministries for which they were nominated.

In the latest vote, the parliament rejected 10 of Karzai's picks while approving seven, thus leaving about a third of the 24 cabinet jobs unfilled. Among those rejected were two of three female nominees.

Holbrooke, arriving from Pakistan on his sixth visit to the region as special representative, dismissed the development as "an internal matter" and called the nominees who were confirmed "excellent." He was in time for the vote approving Zalmay Rassoul for the post of foreign minister and was among the first to shake his hand.

"This is a government we can work with, and look forward to working with," Holbrooke said.

He also disputed the suggestion that last year's election, in which Karzai's closest challenger withdrew from a planned runoff amid widespread charges of voting irregularities, had left a cloud over the president's legitimacy.

"The government is legitimate," Holbrooke said, calling Karzai "the legitimately chosen, legitimate leader of this country."

"I honestly believe it's time to move on, and get on with why we're here," he added, noting that much of 2009 had been consumed by the election and by the deteriorating security situation, which prompted President Obama to launch a wide-ranging review of the United States' Afghanistan policy. The review culminated in a December announcement that 30,000 additional U.S. troops and more civilian aid workers would be sent to the country.

"The troops have begun to arrive," Holbrooke said. "It's a very important symbol of our commitment." He also said the civilian surge was an equally important, if often underreported, part of the new policy.

But the continuing instability in Afghanistan was underscored by fresh reports of violence in the south, particularly in the volatile Helmand province, where the U.S. troop surge is concentrated. Two British soldiers were reported killed by an explosion in Helmand on Friday while on foot patrol. On Saturday, NATO and Afghan troops came under fire from Taliban insurgents attacking from two positions; the foreign troops called for air support and said a missile was fired at a Taliban position.

Also in Helmand, NATO reported that an overnight raid Friday in Nad Ali district killed 11 insurgents and led to the discovery of a weapons cache, a trove of black tar opium and equipment used to make roadside bombs.

Insurgents, meanwhile, fired a rocket into Kabul on Friday night. It landed near the German Embassy, injuring a security guard.

On Saturday, NATO said a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan earlier in the day killed one of its soldiers, but the alliance gave no details.

Holbrooke said one of the United States' key goals is to aggressively support Karzai's initiative to open talks with moderate Taliban elements in hopes of drawing them away from the insurgency.

"There is no vehicle for them to come in from the cold right now," Holbrooke said, adding: "This has got to be an Afghan-led program, but we're ready to support it."

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