KABUL, Afghanistan – Moving to resolve one of Afghanistan's most contentious issues, newly elected President Hamid Karzai said Monday he wanted to select the members of his own Cabinet, pledging it would be one that "meets the needs of the people."
He also called on the loya jirga, the Afghan grand council, to select from within its 1,600-strong membership a committee -- one he said should name the commission that will in turn determine the form and membership of the country's legislature. Karzai's comments came after the loya jirga spent two days unsuccessfully trying to pick a representative body for the nation.
He said the loya jirga's leadership did not realize it would be so difficult and time-consuming to fashion a new legislature and pick its members. The loya jirga started a day late and was still running a day after its scheduled Sunday culmination.
Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, was chosen to lead its 18-month transitional administration last week. He said the grand council should name people to stay behind after it adjourns and choose a commission to establish the structure of the assembly.
The loya jirga adjourned Monday night for the day, and it was unclear when the council would formally close.
Karzai's decision to name his own Cabinet marked a step toward resolving an issue that worries many Afghans. The current interim Cabinet is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and other groups -- especially the majority Pashtuns -- want to make sure they are not shunted aside in a new government.
The new president promised that wouldn't happen.
"The Cabinet will be a Cabinet that meets the needs of the people," Karzai told the gathered delegates.
The loya jirga, based on Afghan tradition, convened last week under a U.N.-guided blueprint to chart the country's immediate future. It has drawn more than 1,600 Afghan delegates from around the country and abroad in a two-step selection process that critics said was rife with intimidation and harassment.
It has managed to accomplish only one of its major tasks -- choosing a president, which it did Thursday night, electing Karzai in a landslide.
Delegates waited more than a day to hear Karzai address them about the Cabinet and assembly. On Sunday, after ordering ballots drawn up to choose the form of the legislature, loya jirga chairman Ismail Qasim Yar abruptly turned to Karzai for guidance after hours of arguments among delegates. The council had been trying to decide between an assembly based entirely on geography or one based on population.
Immediate reaction to Karzai's address was mixed.
"We accept everything Karzai said," said Ajab Gul, a delegate from Ghazni province. Haji Abdul Wadood, also from Ghazni, was more wary. "Who will be part of these commissions? Do we have a say in who sits on these commissions?"
In recent days, many delegates have begun grumbling about time wasted and wondering if a process designed to be democratic had either bypassed them or simply become unwieldy. That chorus seemed to be growing louder on Monday before Karzai spoke.
The method of choosing the legislature is controversial because some ethnic groups -- notably the country's largest, the Pashtuns -- worry it could marginalize them. Pashtuns claim to comprise 65 percent of Afghanistan's people and say any plan that ignores that fact would give them less influence than they deserve.
Many Pashtuns have said the best solution is one delegate for each of Afghanistan's 381 districts, which would presumably create a Pashtun-dominated assembly. However, the loya jirga leadership on Sunday said that would create too many delegates and be too expensive.
It also would doubtless not go down well with the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other less populous ethnic groups.
"We are just repeating the same discussions and hearing the same things. There are issues that should be discussed. Karzai should have come here earlier and announced a Cabinet that is balanced," said delegate Abdul Qader Khan of Kandahar, Afghanistan's major southern city.
The Cabinet's most powerful three ministries -- interior, defense and foreign affairs -- are headed by former members of the northern alliance of opposition groups that fought the Taliban. One of them, Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, offered to resign last week.
Some delegates said they were not encouraged by how the council had unfolded.
"I think this loya jirga is not about changing the system. This change has been resisted through intimidation, pressure, bribery and persuasion," said Omar Zakhilwal, representing the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
"On a scale of zero to 100, I would put the progress at zero," he said Monday before Karzai's speech. "It's been seven days and all we've done is elect a president -- with a result that was predetermined."