The South Asia Channel

Who will replace Saleh and Atmar?

The repercussions of the sacking/resignation of two of the president's three top security officials on Sunday are still sinking in, along with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decree that the status of Taliban prisoners must be reviewed. These major changes on security follow his proclaimed success in demonstrating ‘national unity' at the peace jirga. Despite the tent being packed by Karzai loyalists, it was a beautifully stage-managed event. Those journalists and diplomats who kept saying it would strengthen Karzai's hand seem to have issued a self-fulfilling prophecy. The president is certainly looking more confident.

The wrongful detention of Afghan citizens is clearly an issue which needs addressing and which the Afghan president should be apologising for, but rather than issuing a mea culpa, the peace jirga has allowed him to present a Taliban prisoner review as a goodwill gesture towards the ‘angry brothers.' The bulk of the final resolution of the jirga was surely drafted beforehand, but it was presented as the result of the deliberations of the 80 odd sub-committees, and its demands as the demands of the jirga to the government and others for action. It was a deftly performed sleight of hand which means that prisoner release now is being sold as part of the "Framework for Talks with the Disaffected."

The Resolution adopted at the Conclusion of the National Consultative Peace Jirga (point 8) puts it in this way: We call upon the government of Afghanistan and the international troops stationed in the country: - as a gesture of a goodwill, to take immediate and solid action in freeing from various prisons those detained based on inaccurate information or unsubstantiated allegations. Karzai's decree calls for the establishment of a review panel which will "free those prisoners whose detention is based on inaccurate information or unsubstantiated allegations." Hundreds of Afghans suspected of links to the Taliban are in detention, about 700 in U.S. hands; the rest -- an unknown number -- are in Afghan custody.

The former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS, the Afghan intelligence agency), Amrullah Saleh has confirmed to Reuters that the prospect of releasing Taliban prisoners was the ‘tipping point' of conflict between him and the president. And on the peace jirga, he commented that, "negotiating with ... suicide bombers will disgrace this country."

He also said he had resigned, rather than was sacked. Whereas the sacking/resignation of the Minister of Interior, Hanif Atmar, surprised no one -- the president's criticism of Atmar was legendary in Kabul and it was predictable that, sooner or later, Atmar would go. Karzai's removal of Saleh, however, came out of the blue and had not been by the palace. Saleh is one of the longest-serving officials of the Karzai government and, like Atmar, has enjoyed strong foreign backing. Sources at the Palace reported that Karzai's desire to be rid of Saleh and especially Atmar were repeatedly blocked by the U.S. (with U.K. in support); both countries liked and trusted both men. Now, their foreign supporters seem to have been ambushed by a post-jirga confident Karzai.

Atmar and particularly Saleh have been stable elements of Afghanistan's security sector for some time. Incidentally, while Saleh has worked for NDS -- and before that for Shura-ye Nazar intelligence for years, Atmar also worked for the agency -- albeit as an adolescent and young man, when it was still called KhAD, during the last years of the Dr. Najib regime. 

Saleh appears to have become tired of the back-biting and marginalisation by some of those in the Palace, but there were also, reportedly, substantive policy differences. Amrullah Saleh, who shares not only Ahmad Shah Massud's birthplace, but his struggle against the Taliban from 1995 to 2001, is a less than eager advocate of courting the 'angry brothers' away from the war. In a rare interview, from June 2006, he described the Taliban as "proxy forces created by Pakistan." In answer to the question of what would happen if Pakistan shut down its madrassas and stopped its territory being used for sanctuary, his answer was on the robust end of how to deal with the Taliban and their backers:

"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."

Compare Saleh's attitude with the rather warm, cuddly attitudes towards the Taleban seen at the peace jirga, such as this remark, by the deputy chairman, Mawlawi Qeyyamuddin Kashaf (a Sayyaf man), as filmed by Tolo TV:

"This was not an official or government jirga. The sons of most of the participants are members of the Taliban. So if their fathers were sitting there, were happy and confident and speaking their own words, then I believe that God willing the Taliban will not disobey and the government will make sure the contents of this resolution are implemented."

Atmar and particularly Saleh have been stable elements of Afghanistan's security sector for some time and their removal will not go unfelt. Saleh has worked for the NDS -- and before that for Shura-ye Nazar intelligence for many years. Now, for the first time since 2001, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency may not be Shura-ye Nazar. That is important: when the group captured Kabul from the Taleban in 2001, they took control not just of the police and army, but also the NDS, taking back what they lost when they were driven out by the Taleban in 1996 (when Marshal -- then General -- Fahim was still in charge). Insiders have told AAN that the group has remained at the heart of an agency which has enjoyed excellent co-operation with foreign agencies, particularly the CIA. With a new man at the top, that may now change.

Coincidentally, before Atmar went into development, he also worked for Afghan intelligence -- as an adolescent and young man -- when it was called KhAD. That was during the last years of the Dr. Najib regime.

Both Atmar and Saleh will now be looking for new jobs, while speculation over their successors grows. In Kabul, bets are on for a Pashtun, Karzai-loyalist for head of NDS, preferably someone with close family ties, who is ‘on side' in dealing with the Taliban and who, possibly can also deal with Pakistan. Names being bandied around are Engineer Ibrahim, the current deputy chief of the National Security Council and acting head of NDS whom Karzai knows from his Quetta days; Assadullah Khaled, former governor of Ghazni and Kandahar, an Ittihad-e Islami commander during the war and an important client of the president's younger brother; Farook Wardak the current minister for education and close Karzai confident; and Hekmat Karzai, the president's cousin.

It is assumed that, with a Pashtun at the NDS, the new minister of interior would be a Tajik which would make General Helal, a professional police officer during the PDPA and former deputy interior minister (2002-2004) and Ismael Khan, Jamiat strongman from Herat and currently minister for water and power, the frontrunners. However, the name of General Besmellah Khan, the Shura-ye Nazar commander and currently Afghan National Army Chief of Staff is also mentioned, although whether he would want to give up his prime position in the army for the altogether more exposed and rocky waters of the Ministry of Interior seems doubtful.

There is also speculation in the Afghan press about other post-jirga appointments -- the possibility of a Taib being sent as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, for example, or that Ustad Rabbani might be rewarded for flocking to Karzai's side in the jirga -- and abandoning his former Jamiat and ‘opposition' ally, Dr. Abdullah -- by getting some ambassadorships for some of his people, possibly even his son.

All of this is of course still speculation and part of the dynamic process of political negotiation, but it is an indicator of the febrile atmosphere in Kabul since the bombshell of Atmar and Saleh's removal was dropped. It seems likely there will be other changes of direction on security as well. The first is the president's decree that the status of Taliban prisoners be reviewed is merely the first.

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published.

Hanif Atmar // MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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