The cabinet list was submitted to parliament two weeks ago
The rejection by Afghan MPs of most of President Hamid Karzai's new cabinet is a political setback for the country, the UN's mission chief Kai Eide says.
Mr Eide said it would prolong the lack of a functioning government and that this was "particularly worrying" in a country facing so many challenges.
Parliament approved just seven of 24 ministers nominated by Mr Karzai.
It rejected a former warlord and the only woman nominated for the cabinet in the wake of disputed polls last August.
MPs approved five of the highest-profile ministers thought to have Western backing - including the defence and interior nominees.
But even then few gained much more than the minimum vote required for parliamentary approval, AFP news agency reported.
The vote is one of the few occasions when parliamentarians have genuine power to hold the executive to account, analysts say.
Many nominees were criticised as having been picked for reasons other than their competency.
'Beauty of democracy'
"I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament," Kai Eide told journalists in Kabul.
He said this was a "setback and it's a distraction."
"It prolongs the situation without a functioning government, which has lasted since summer."
"It's particularly worrying in a country in conflict, where you have so many challenges and need to focus attention on urgent reform programmes," Mr Eide said.
He added that much political energy would continue to be absorbed by the formation of a new government."
A spokesman for Mr Karzai said the president had also been surprised by parliament's verdict, but would respect it.
"He is of course not happy with the situation," Waheed Omar said.
However it showed the "beauty of democracy".
Mr Waheed said the outcome was not good for the functioning of the government, but all ministries were still working and Mr Karzai would submit new nominations, according to AP news agency.
Under the constitution, rejected nominees cannot be proposed for the same post again, parliamentary spokesman Husib Noori said.
Parliament is set to begin a 45-day recess on Tuesday.
Analysts say Mr Karzai had presented his cabinet to parliament hoping to finalise his team before a conference in London on Afghanistan later this month.
President Karzai has been under pressure over corruption
US President Barack Obama announced last month he would send 30,000 new US troops to Afghanistan, with a view to beating the Taliban.
Nato countries have followed up by pledging another 7,000 troops so far.
Mr Obama said he wants to begin handing over to Afghan security forces by mid-2011.
President Karzai was returned for a second five-year term after last August's election, despite investigators discovering more than a quarter of votes were fraudulent.