Will Karzai's Afghan Cabinet Shakeup Make Taliban Reintegration Easier?

Karzai replaces two top security officials unpopular with the Taliban.

June 6, 2010, 2:49 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 6, 2010 — -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai fired two senior members of his government today, replacing officials particularly unpopular with the Taliban less than a week after insurgents launched a failed attack against a national peace assembly.

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Afghanistan's chief spy, Amrullah Saleh, both lost Karzai's confidence after those attacks, according to Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer.

"The president asked for an explanation about the attacks," Omer told ABC News. "Explanations were given and the president did not find the explanations satisfactory. He decided they had not done enough."

Insurgents attacked the assembly, or jirga, with three suicide bombers and rockets, one of which landed within 200 feet of the jirga tent as Karzai spoke. Atmar's spokesman said today an additional 15 insurgents had been arrested and 700 rockets confiscated, preventing even larger attacks.

But Saleh and Atmar, who were popular among American officials, were not necessarily on the same page as Karzai when it came to reintegrating Taliban into Afghan society, analysts pointed out.

Today, Karzai began to enact plans endorsed by the assembly's 1,600 delegates on measures designed to earn the Taliban's trust and, therefore, reconcile with insurgents. Both of their replacements, named today as caretaker leaders, will likely be more palatable to the Taliban, who call Karzai untrustworthy and weak.

Saleh, who was from the only province the Taliban never conquered, will be replaced by longtime Karzai aide Engineer Ibrahim Speenzada, whose ethnicity is the same as the vast majority of the Taliban. Speenzada has been close to the Taliban leadership in the past, meeting with them in Kandahar, their spiritual home, where he once lived. Speenzada was trusted enough by senior leaders to meet with one of them in Guantanamo Bay, hand-delivering a letter from Mullah Mohammad Fazel back to his family in Afghanistan, according to former commanders.

Atmar's replacement is his deputy, Gen. Muneer Mangal. In the 1980s, both Atmar and Mangal fought against mujahedeen fighters, many of whom would later become Taliban leaders. But after the mujahedeen took control of Kandahar, Mangal handed over government weapons to their commander, earning at least a small level of trust with future Taliban leaders, according to former senior officials in Kandahar.

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Karzai officials declined to comment on whether Saleh and Atmar were replaced in order to better appeal to the insurgency or because their feelings about reintegration diverged from the president's. Publicly, they insist that the rocket and suicide attacks on the jirga -- even though they killed nobody but the attackers -- embarrassed the president and caused him to doubt their ability to do their jobs.

Saleh and Atmar have been widely trusted by the international community. American officials have described them as key figures in the attempt to raise the efficiency of the Karzai government and reduce corruption. It's unclear whether American officials believed that their removal would help facilitate reintegration.

Karzai, clearly mindful of the reaction among the international community, called an emergency meeting with Western ambassadors and military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"I remain confident in President Karzai's leadership and his ability to appoint credible replacements to lead these critical organizations charged with protecting the Afghan people and ensuring their sovereignty," McChrystal said in a press release after the meeting.

Earlier in the day, in a hastily arranged news conference, Saleh said there were "tens" of reasons why he was leaving his position, but would only admit that he had failed the president during the jirga.

"I want to thank colleagues who, for the last six-and-a-half years, always made sure the three color flag of Afghanistan flew high, safe from the threats of its enemies: al Qaeda and Pakistan," Saleh told journalists.

Pakistan, where many senior Taliban officials live, has long mistrusted Saleh. Senior Pakistani military officials have complained to ABC News about the Afghan FBI, known as the National Directorate of Security, or NDS, saying senior officials were giving Pakistan a bad name.

Just two weeks ago, Saleh accused Pakistan's premiere spy agency, the Inter-Services Directorate, or ISI, of training a suicide bomber who killed four Western colonels in Kabul in May.

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