By Asma Nemati (in Kabul)
Sunday’s baffling resignations of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Amrullah Saleh, head of the National Directorate of Security, shocked and worried Afghans, not to mention high-ranking foreign military officials and the international diplomatic community.
The official reason for the resignation of these two officials was President Karzai’s anger at their inability to thwart Taliban attacks on the first day of the National Consultative Peace Jirga. Analysts here are quite skeptical of that explanation and are scratching their heads trying to find a good reason for these sudden resignations. However, a clearer picture is emerging of the underlying conflict between Karzai and his ministers.
Both Atmar and Saleh enjoyed longstanding backing by the US and have done so throughout their careers. Amrullah Saleh worked together with Northern Alliances leader Ahmad Shah Massoud prior to his assassination days before the September 11 attacks. As head of the National Directorate of Security—another name for Afghanistan’s spy agency—he was known for his transparent honesty and hard-working nature. His resignation is a major blow for Afghanistan’s national security and it will be difficult to find a replacement of equal ability.
Hanif Atmar, who worked for the KHAD, Afghanistan’s spy agency towards the end of Dr. Najibullah’s regime and fought against the Afghan mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war, also pursued his studies in the UK. After completing several degrees, he worked in humanitarian aid agencies, including the International Rescue Committee for Afghanistan. After the Taliban were ousted, he came back to Afghanistan to partake in the new Afghan government.
One of the outcomes of last week’s Peace Jirga was a plan to release Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. Amrullah Saleh told Reuters News that this particular nod to the Taliban was the tipping point of an ongoing conflict between him and Karzai. Saleh saw this act as giving in to the Taliban, saying that negotiating with suicide bombers will disgrace this country.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network quoted him on how to deal with the Taliban and their sympathizers from a 2006 interview:
This war has two ways to be fought. We have a quick route to solution, and we have a long route to solution. To fight it at the strategic level, we have to hit the leadership, and the leadership is not in Afghanistan. To fight it tactically, we need more time. Currently we are fighting it tactically. Insurgency is like grass. Two ways to destroy it: You cut the upper part, and after four months, you have it back; you poison the soil where that grass is, then you eliminate it forever.
Despite Saleh’s outright abhorrence for any talks with insurgents who are cold-bloodedly killing innocent Afghan civilians, he enjoyed popular backing by the West, as did Atmar. In 2007, the then Minister of Education Atmar was accused by Karzai of spying for the British. Atmar resigned the next day in spite of Karzai’s apologies. After months without communication, Karzai, appointed Atmar Interior Minister under intense pressure from the West.
Rumors surrounding the shocking news are plentiful. Some see this as part of Karzai’s ongoing impetuous behavior as he seeks to secure his legacy beyond Obama’s July 2011 pullout. Regardless of the reasons, the implications of Hanif Atmar and Amrullah Saleh’s resignation are alarming and have put an extra layer of confusion on Afghanistan’s national politics. In light of this, the task of bringing peace to Afghanistan seems even more grueling, making it sound more like a distant hope than a tangible reality.
Asma Nemati is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her blogs have appeared in Foreign Policy and The Huffington Post.