Time to Go: Why Did 2 Top Afghan Security Bosses Quit?
Nobody really accepted the official version of the story. So now that the theories are starting to roll out, they’re worth considering.
On Sunday, the Afghan presidential palace announced the resignations of the country’s interior minister, Hanif Atmar, and intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh.
The breaking news alert was presented as a fait accompli and caught everyone by surprise. Usually this sort of news starts with unconfirmed reports, followed by official confirmations, which in turn are followed by official announcements. This time, the old steps were skipped.
Instead, we got a statement from the presidential palace, no less, informing us that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had already accepted the resignations. The stated reason was the officials’ failure to prevent the attacks on the peace jirga. (See blog, “Let the jirga games begin – with a bang")
In Afghanistan, such accountability sparks suspicions. Since when have Afghan heads rolled for security failures resulting in attacks that killed no one – except two suspected suicide bombers?
Even the Afghan press, which largely welcomed the news, noted that something was amiss.
There’s a lot amiss really, so let’s take it step-by-step.
Out goes Saleh, the Pakistan-bashing Tajik
For starters, at his press conference Sunday, Saleh said “there were tens of internal and external reasons” for his resignation. He did not immediately detail them, but in the past few days, they’re starting to emerge.
Saleh, it must be said, is an ethnic Tajik from the Northern Alliance, the movement that fought the Taliban before the 2001 invasion. As the Afghan administration tries to move their Taliban negotiations into high gear following last week’s peace jirga, all eyes are tuned on the fates of Tajik officials holding critical security positions.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Afghan parliamentarian Khalid Pashtoon (yes, note that family name) had this to say: "Intel has a very important role in reconciliation…Saleh was not the right person for this job. No Taliban would ever trust this man" - to negotiate.
Pakistan and India in the mix
Saleh was also one of the most outspoken critics of Pakistan. He publicly blasted Islamabad for its support of the Taliban and other extremists groups, notably the LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), an ISI favorite designed for jihad in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The Indian government believes the LeT is responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. So, imagine Pakistan’s rage when Saleh tells the international press that the LeT is responsible for the attacks on Indian targets in Kabul and that “those who know Lashkar-e Taiba know it's a child of ISI”.
Pakistan has complained of links between the Afghan intelligence services under Saleh and its arch-foe India. On the other hand, guess who’s thrilled about the new Afghan government’s push to negotiate with the Taliban? Pakistan views itself as a critical conduit in such negotiations, one that can enable Islamabad to play a strategic role in Afghanistan once the international mission wraps up. This Af-Pak-Ind blog is not called the New Great Game for nothing.
The first casualty of the landmark peace jirga
That’s just the context behind the Saleh resignation. The spark however was Karzai’s announcement earlier Sunday that a committee would be formed to review prisoner releases from Afghan detention facilities. The news was hailed as “the first policy measure following the landmark peace jirga”.
In which case, consider Saleh the first casualty of the landmark peace jirga. When a Reuters reporter asked if the prisoner release initiative was the main reason for his resignation, Saleh's reply was a simple, “absolutely”.
Goodbye Atmar, a ‘world class’ cabinet member
Apparently Atmar, the former interior minister, also had problems with the new roadmap to peace with the Taliban.
In an interview with the Washington Post, a senior US military official noted that, "Atmar really disagreed with the reintegration of the Taliban into the police and the army," before adding, "He had some problems with it, and, frankly, we agreed with him."
Given the importance the international mission places on the Afghan forces, Washington's apprehensions over integrating Talibs into the security services is hardly surprising.
An ethnic Pashtun, Atmar was widely expected to contest the 2009 presidential election, but in the end decided against it. Nevertheless, he has the sort of political ambitions that Karzai does not admire.
Atmar was also educated in Britain, where he fled at the start of the post-Soviet civil war. His proximity to the British, and his reputation among US officials (US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry put Atmar on a list of “world class” Afghan cabinet members) did not endear him to a president increasingly isolated from and castigated by the international community.
And so, it seems, it was time to let Salef and Atmar go.
Their deputies have taken over in a transitional capacity, but don’t expect permanent replacements anytime soon - or anytime before the upcoming parliamentary elections. Karzai had a hard enough time getting his current cabinet approved by parliament. He probably has no stomach to revisit that chapter.