The head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said Sunday that parliament's rejection of most of President Hamid Karzai's nominees for a new Cabinet will delay efforts to establish a functioning government that can focus on badly needed reforms.
Kai Eide said he was surprised that lawmakers rejected 17 of Karzai's 24 picks. Karzai will now have to spend time submitting new Cabinet nominees, delaying his second-term government's ability to fully partner with donor nations ahead of an international conference on Afghanistan in London on Jan. 28, he said.
In 10 hours of voting Saturday, parliament rejected nominees viewed as Karzai's political cronies, those believed to be under the influence of warlords and others deemed unqualified. The vote was a setback to the president, although lawmakers did approve his retention of incumbents in the key portfolios of defense, interior and finance.
"I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament," Eide said. "It's a setback and it's a distraction."
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Sunday that the president also was surprised by the rejections, but the vote showed Afghanistan has a pluralistic political system.
"This is the beauty of democracy. We are exercising democracy," Omar told reporters.
He acknowledged that "this is obviously not good in terms of the functioning of the government, in terms of services," but said all ministries were still functioning.
"In some ministries the deputies are carrying out the duties," Omar said.
Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who ran against Karzai in last August's fraud-ridden presidential election, said he believed the rejection of the Cabinet nominees could have reverberations in this month's international conference.
"I think it will affect the situation in the London conference, first of all (because) the legitimacy of Mr. Karzai was under question because of what happened in the elections and afterwards," he told Associated Press Television News.
Karzai will submit new nominations for the empty ministerial posts, Omar said, but it was not clear when.
"It could take weeks," Eide predicted. "It could take more than weeks before we have a government shaped and approved by parliament."
Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, is stepping down this year after a rocky two-year tenure marked by a fraud-marred national election and a deadly Taliban attack on U.N. employees. He spoke to reporters just hours before leaving the country to speak Wednesday at the U.N. Security Council.
He said he would express his concern that the deployment of 37,000 more foreign troops to Afghanistan would increase military involvement in political, civilian and humanitarian affairs at precisely the time in the 8-year-old war when it is critical to strengthen political and civilian institutions.
"We need a sustained, long-term build up of the civilian institutions and the Afghan economy," he said. "That is a concern I have and I will express that as strongly as I can at the Security Council."
Eide also called for electoral reforms to be in place before upcoming parliamentary elections are held.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has said it plans to hold the elections as scheduled on May 22 despite international concerns that another ballot now without reforms would amount to a repeat of last August's presidential election.
Eide noted a provision in Afghan law permits the elections to be postponed for a few months.
"For me, and I think for the international community as such, it is important that a real reform process takes place before the next elections happen," Eide said.
Ali Najafi, head of the election commission, said last week that Afghanistan needs about $50 million from the international community to meet the election's estimated budget of $120 million. Eide said there have been preliminary discussions, but the Afghan government has not made any formal request for money or assistance.
Also Sunday, the Kunduz provincial governor's spokesman, Mahbobullah Sayedi, said 21 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting Saturday with Afghan and foreign forces. There were no casualties among the joint force or civilians, he said.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Kabul contributed to this report.