x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

New threat to Karzai as key officials quit cabinet

Resignations of intelligence chief and interior minister over latest terror attacks aggravate deep faultlines at heart of Afghan leadership.

KABUL // The leadership of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has been thrown into doubt once more following the resignations of two senior officials from his administration. Hanif Atmar, the interior minister, and Amrullah Saleh, chief of intelligence, quit on Sunday after facing criticism for failing to prevent an attack on a high-profile conference here last week.

Their departures threaten to aggravate the fault lines that exist between the government, its political opponents and its allies in the international community. "He is running this office as a king and even as an emperor. He is trying to organise and mobilise people who are just blindly following him, who are just looking at him and not arguing," said Haji Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, a candidate in the 2009 presidential election.

"People who argue, people who have got their own opinion, people who have got principles, people who want only to obey the law, these people have a difficult time." Last week's attack targeted about 1,500 elders, religious leaders and officials who had gathered in Kabul to discuss the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban. Rockets were fired at the meeting and although the bloodshed that resulted was relatively minimal, the assault was an obvious embarrassment given the tight security the government had ordered in the city.

According to Mr Atmar and Mr Saleh, they were summoned to see the president and asked to account for the breach. Unhappy with their explanations, Mr Karzai accepted their offer to quit. At first glance this might appear to be a logical turn of events, but in the fractious and turbulent world of Afghan politics, little is ever taken at face value. The rumours and conspiracy theories began almost immediately afterwards. Mr Karzai has been under mounting pressure for some time now and each major decision he makes comes under intense scrutiny.

Last year he was accused of violating the constitution when he agreed to postpone the presidential election from its scheduled date in the spring, while remaining in power. He then took his opponents by surprise and called for a snap election before the summer, causing further uproar. When the vote eventually took place last August, it was mired in fraud and allegations of ballot rigging on a massive scale.

Since being sworn into office for a second term, Mr Karzai has struggled to form a cabinet, with the majority of his nominations twice rejected by parliament and a number of positions still unconfirmed.Meawhile his half-brother,a provincial councillor in Kandahar, continues to face accusations of involvement in the drugs trade - an allegation both family members deny. Mr Karzai's relationship with his foreign allies has also been noticeably strained. Tensions came to the surface when he recently flosted to MPs the idea that he might join the Taliban. But a subsequent visit to Washington saw him patch up any differences with his US counterpart, Barack Obama, in public at least.

"The problem the West has got now is that they are stuck with the system and they have to support it because otherwise what will be their answer?" said Mr Arsalai, who is a half-brother of Abdul Haq, an influential mujaheddin commander killed by the Taliban in 2001. "They cannot now destroy the structure and dismiss everything. They have spent billions on it, they have spent nine years on it, they cannot afford that."

This is a common view among the president's political opponents, who often feel their warnings about his leadership were ignored at a crucial stage. Saleh Mohammed Regestani is a former MP who was deputy of the election campaign office for Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai's main rival in last year's vote. He said the international community now had no choice but to dampen down its expectations and rule out any chance of improvements in the years to come. The best it can hope for, he said, was that the situation would not deteriorate.

"They wanted Afghanistan to have a strong president who would take big steps towards the rule of law, good governance, security and fighting against the drug dealers. But Mr Karzai couldn't do that and now we are facing several crises here: an economic crisis, political crisis, security crisis, even a social crisis," he said. Some of these problems are evident on the ground, where violence is spreading on the back of the Taliban-led insurgency.

On Monday 10 foreign soldiers were killed in separate incidents nationwide and there are constant reports of imminent attacks in Kabul. Last week's meeting, or "jirga", could also open up new political divisions. Prominent Afghan leaders including Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq and Atta Mohammad Noor stayed away. Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief who just quit, has revealed that he resigned in part because negotiating with "suicide bombers will disgrace this country".

Abdul Iqrar Wasel, dean of the faculty of law and political science at Kabul University, acknowledged that the situation was deteriorating. "At the end of each year our economic, social and political problems increase," he said. However, he defended Mr Karzai's conduct when deciding the make-up of his cabinet. "It is within his rights and power," he said, before adding one criticism. "When he wants to choose people for his cabinet he does not choose the most professional and qualified. He prefers issues of tribe, language, relationships and geography over professionalism."