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Changes in Afghan Cabinet Include Appointment of Pashtuns to Key Posts - 2003-09-21

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has approved a long-awaited reshuffle of his Defense Ministry in an apparent effort to make it more acceptable to the country's ethnic Pashtun majority. Such changes are essential before the country's dozens of private armies can be disbanded.

Under the new changes, several key posts in the Afghan Defense Ministry will be handed over to commanders of Pashtun decent and other ethnicities.

President Hamid Karzai made the changes after critics said the ministry has been dominated by ethnic Tajiks who led the Northern Alliance, the group which joined with the United States to overthrow the former hardline Taleban regime in 2001.

While former Northern Alliance leader Mohammad Fahim will stay on as Defense Minister, the ministry's number-two job will pass from Northern Alliance veteran Bismillah Khan to an ethnic Pashtun commander, Abdul Rahim Wardak.

General Khan will, however, take up a new post as chief of army staff. Several other top ministry positions will also go to non-Tajik commanders.

The reshuffling is more than a political move. It is, most observers agree, a crucial step towards demobilizing Afghanistan's numerous private armies and independent militias.

Many militia leaders have indicated that they would not disband their troops while the government military structure remains dominated by Tajik Northern Alliance leaders.

The country's United Nations mission has called for the defense ministry to take a form more acceptable to the majority of Afghans. U.N. spokesman David Singh said whether or not the new reshuffling has gone far enough will be decided on the street.

"It will be the reaction of the Afghans throughout the country that will determine either the success or lack of success with regard to this important reform initiative. So in the coming days, we're going to be listening very carefully to leaders - community leaders, ordinary Afghans -about their reaction to these appointments," He said.

The government of Japan, which is providing a majority of the funding for the planned demobilization project, has said it did not want the project to begin until the ministry reforms took place.

The problem of feuding militias has long plagued Afghanistan. Private fighting forces are common across the country, and even Defense Minister Fahim maintains a militia in the capital Kabul, despite the presence of international peacekeepers there. Reports say the demobilization program is now likely to start within the coming weeks.