Blow for Karzai as top cabinet ministers quit

Two of the most powerful members of President Hamid Karzai's beleaguered government resigned yesterday plunging Afghanistan into fresh political crisis.

The Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, and the Security Minister, Amrullah Saleh, both quit unexpectedly, apparently after Mr Karzai blamed them for failing to stop the Taliban's embarrassing attack during his presidential speech at a conference, or jirga, in Kabul last week to discuss plans for peace and reconciliation in the country. Taliban militants fired rockets and battled with security forces close to the venue but no delegates were injured.

Both Mr Saleh and Mr Atmar held key jobs in the government's battle against the Taliban, with the spy chief responsible for gathering intelligence about the militants, used not just by the Afghan security forces but also by Nato troops. Mr Atmar oversaw the expansion of the police force, which the West sees as perhaps the most important preparation for the gradual hand over of security operations to the Afghan government.

Despite receiving glowing praise as a technocrat, Mr Atmar, whose CV includes stints with humanitarian organisations and a posting as a senior spy under Afghanistan's communist regime, has also come in for criticism for his managerial style.

One Western diplomat speculated that in Kabul, where politics is rarely as it seems, it was Mr Atmar's failures building up the fledgling Afghan police force that actually led to his dismissal.

"He's more of a politician, not a manager," one said. "He tends to involve himself in tactical decisions. He doesn't delegate well. He's a politician with ambitions so he needed to be removed from the decision-making inside the ministry." More damningly, Mr Atmar was also said to have dispatched just 12 out of 568 graduates from a three-year training course at the Kabul police academy to southern Afghanistan where they are needed most. "The only reason those 12 were sent to the south was because they couldn't afford to pay their way to a safer posting," the diplomat claimed.

Meanwhile, friends of Mr Saleh say his resignation was the culmination of months of budding resentment towards Mr Karzai. "Amrullah Saleh had differences when it came to security issues with Karzai and also he had differences when it came to, for example, the latest jirga, when Karzai signed a decree that Taliban prisoners should be released," one confidant said. "The intelligence network made a lot of sacrifices to get some of these terrorists in prison. Instead of condemning the Taliban, Karzai praised them."

There was also the question of the spy network's politically awkward revelation that not only did many Taliban cells operate in and receive backing from Pakistan, but that Pakistan's intelligence agency had helped with Taliban suicide bombings on targets in Kabul, such as the Indian Embassy in 2008 and 2009, and a guesthouse used by Indian clientele earlier this year. "Pakistan has put several conditions" on collaborating with the Afghan government's plans for peace with the Taliban "and one of those was the removal of Amrullah Saleh as intelligence chief," Mr Saleh's friend said. "These different factors played in Karzai's decision to distance himself from the spy chief."

Mr Saleh himself told a news conference that the president had "lost confidence in our capability to provide security for the jirga and my explanation to the president was not convincing enough".

He added that he had resigned for "moral" reasons after Mr Karzai rejected his explanations. He said there were "dozens of other internal and external reasons" for his departure. Mr Saleh is understood to have tried to quit several times in the past, but until yesterday Mr Karzai had refused to let him go.

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