KABUL // Hamid Karzai is heading into his most testing week since he was controversially re-elected as Afghanistan's president, following the unveiling yesterday of a new list of cabinet nominees. The 16 names will now be closely scrutinised by parliament. Whether they are approved will depend on a lower house that has shown an increasing willingness to criticise and, where possible, block the government. Two cabinet positions have yet to receive nominees.
Despite backroom deals and discussions aimed at breaking the impasse, there is no guarantee that they will not meet the same fate as the previous candidates - most of whom were recently rejected. Mr Karzai's picks this time round will have pleased some as he opted not to reshuffle into different posts nominees who were originally turned down. Instead, he has drawn up an entirely fresh list that includes three women. Two ministerial positions have yet to be announced.
The names themselves are, however, only half the story. Many MPs believe the president has ignored the parliament too often during his time in office and they may feel he has still not learnt his lesson. Others angered by his disputed re-election might also again try to scupper the formation of a new government. Then there are the warlords, whose influence remains strong, though perhaps not as obvious as it once was. What role they did or did not play in the list will have crucial implications for the country's short-term and long-term stability.
For Mr Karzai, it is essential that the overwhelming majority - if not all - of his nominees are approved. A second massive defeat would leave him embarrassed and exposed to further domestic and international pressure at a time when the country is facing a myriad of crises. While every year is billed as pivotal in Afghanistan, 2010 genuinely has the look of being a point of no return. A number of factors, ranging from the 30,000 extra US troops due to be deployed to the continued fallout from last summer's presidential vote and the growing unrest in neighbouring Pakistan, mean a substantial political vacuum is dangerous in the extreme.
The fact is that the president and his foreign allies have no time to waste. Both are fast losing their remaining credibility among the people here, and with each day stuck in limbo the Taliban gain momentum. A major international conference on Afghanistan is due to take place in London on January 28 and that is the deadline everyone is working towards. Mr Karzai, his supporters in parliament and the British and US governments must hope this issue is resolved before then.
It has been argued that the MPs' rejection of 17 of the 24 candidates first picked could prove a blessing in disguise, allowing the president to chose people he sincerely wants, rather than simply following through with deals he made to help get re-elected. The addition of three females to the list is, on the face of it, very welcome. So is the complete absence of Ismail Khan, a notorious former Mujahideen commander with an appalling human rights record who had been minister of energy.
Colleagues of Abdul Rashid Dostum, another infamous warlord, also appear to have been shunned. Afghans will certainly be hoping it is a new beginning. The problem is that little is ever as it seems here and the last few years have created a deep sense of weariness and cynicism across much of the country. What happens in the week ahead will go some way to determining whether Mr Karzai can salvage something from the wreckage.