KABUL - President Hamid Karzai proposed new names on Saturday to replace an Afghan cabinet line-up rejected by parliament, omitting controversial ex-guerrilla commanders and their allies but still disappointing diplomats and lawmakers.
The absence of powerful figures such as former guerrilla chief Ismail Khan and the allies of Uzbek militia boss Abdul Rashid Dostum was described as a positive sign by those who want to curb the influence of ex-warlords.
Western governments see improving the cabinet as a vital step to bolstering Afghanistan so they can eventually begin withdrawing troops. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to send an extra 30,000 Americans to join an international force of nearly 110,000 troops fighting the Taliban.
Washington in particular has said it will not give aid money to individual ministries unless it trusts the minister.
But the overall reaction to the new list, mainly composed of little-known figures with some former ministers long out of favour, was guarded at best.
It looks like Karzai has picked them up from the street, parliament member Sayed Dawood Hashimi told Reuters, predicting that only four or five would be approved.
One could hardly describe the new list as an improvement over the last list, said an international diplomat who asked not to be named while giving a frank assessment of the line-up.
Many of them are completely unknown. Some of them are known politicians who were removed in the past for corruption.
Appointing his new cabinet is the first major test for Karzai, Afghanistan's leader since 2001, whose reputation in the West has been hurt since he won re-election last year in a vote marred by allegations of fraud.
Parliament rejected 17 of his 24 cabinet nominees last week in an unprecedented snub, with lawmakers saying many lacked qualifications or were beholden to the powerful armed factions that ran the country for decades.
No vetoed candidate was offered a new post, although the palace earlier had said some might be. Two spots still vacant also were likely to go to new faces, Karzai's spokesman said.
KHAN LEFT OUT, DOSTUM ALLIES DECEIVED
Saturday's new list was notable for the exclusion of Khan and the allies of Dostum, both of whom campaigned for Karzai at the last minute, winning him votes among their followers but alarming those who want the influence of former warlords reduced.
Karzai deceived us, said Alem Sahi, a member of parliament from Dostum's Junbesh party which saw three of its members bumped from Karzai's previous list. We collected 700,000 votes for him and in return he promised us several cabinet posts.
Parliament's veto last week of Khan, a powerful regional boss who served as the outgoing water minister, was seen as the clearest sign lawmakers aimed to curb the former commanders of armed factions that dominated the country for decades.
The international diplomat called the snubs to Junbesh and Khan an encouraging sign, but added: We're less interested in the political background of each of the nominees and more interested in their professional competence.
He questioned in particular the appointment of a former interior minister, Zarar Ahmad Muqbel, as counter-narcotics minister, saying Britain and the United States had lobbied hard to exclude Muqbel from the cabinet in the past.
The new list included a record three women, up from just one in both the outgoing cabinet and Karzai's earlier list.
Dawood Sultanzoy, one of the parliamentarians who led the revolt against the previous list, told Reuters the new list was a mix of qualified and not very qualified people.
I think the result of the vote will also be a mix of some who will get the vote of confidence and some will not, he said.
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said parliamentarians would warm to the candidates when they look into their expertise.
The parliament has not had the chance to check their background, see their achievements -- these are new faces, he said. Many have PhDs and most of them have masters degrees.
The new list contained 16 names, including Karzai's security adviser, Zalmay Rasul, nominated to the previously unfilled post of foreign minister. The two posts left unfilled are the communications ministry and the water and energy portfolio.
Seven ministers already confirmed from the original list included the defence, interior and finance ministers, held over from Karzai's outgoing cabinet and liked by Western governments.
Karzai hopes to have the new cabinet confirmed in time for a January 21 conference in London that will be his debut in the West after blows to his reputation the re-election, in which a U.N.-backed probe found nearly a third of his votes were fake.
The past year has been by far the deadliest of the eight-year-old war. The international force said on Saturday that three of its troops had died in the last 24 hours, two from roadside bombs and another from a vehicle accident.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Michael Roddy)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)