Afghanistan Sacks Its Security Chiefs: How Will That Affect U.S. Forces?

The parliamentary denoucement of the ministers of defense and the interior may be a sign of Afghan democracy at work but it makes the security situation much more volatile for U.S. forces preparing to withdraw

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Omar Sobhani / Reuters

An Afghan man collects parts of a damaged civilian passenger bus, which was hit by a remote-controlled bomb, in the Paghman district of Kabul on Aug. 7, 2012. The device hit the bus on Tuesday, killing nine civilians and wounding three others, according to the district police chief

The death notices that NATO e-mails to the press when a soldier is killed in action in Afghanistan are disturbing in their brevity and vary only in their basic details. One of the two issued on Tuesday read, “KABUL, Afghanistan (Aug. 7) — An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service member died following an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in southern Afghanistan today.” It is a common type: soldiers are mostly killed by roadside bombs and small-arms fire in Afghanistan’s south and east.

Over July, NATO issued 22 of those e-mails, accounting for 30 soldiers killed in action — meaning an average of almost one soldier killed every day of the month. And 11 NATO soldiers have been killed since Aug. 1. These are the statistics facing NATO command — numbers that point to an unweakened insurgency that has expanded to encircle Kabul — as it prepares to withdraw and hand over primary security duties to an Afghan army and national police that many fear are unprepared.

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This fragile security mix became more volatile over the weekend when Afghanistan’s fractious parliament returned a vote of no confidence against Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, key security chiefs widely accepted by Western officials. On Tuesday, Aug. 7, Wardak announced he would step down rather than continue to hold his post as an acting Minister until President Hamid Karzai finds a replacement.

The vote of no confidence came after allegations of corruption and perceived feebleness on the parts of Wardak and Mohammadi in their response to weeks of rocket and artillery barrages over Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan. The attacks, which reportedly include some 400 shells that fell in one July day in Kunar province, have displaced hundreds of civilians and killed at least four people. NATO press releases have pointed a finger at insurgents and shied away from accusing the Pakistani military of the attacks, even though insurgents do not have the necessary heavy artillery or skill to carry out such assaults. TIME’s query to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters on this question was never answered, though observers have noted that NATO has to tread carefully with Islamabad now that Pakistan has reopened the border to the alliance’s resupply lines — a fact highlighted by the Aug. 2 visit to Pakistan by General John Allen, the U.S. and NATO’s chief military officer in Afghanistan.

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Though Lieut. General James Terry, the new leader of NATO’s international joint command, has tried to downplay the significance of the sacking of the two Ministers, longtime observers are worried about the future of the transition process. “This move is significant. [Wardak and Mohammadi] are heavily involved in the security forces of Afghanistan, in the making of the security forces and in the transition process. Any new Minister will need some time to familiarize himself, especially if he comes from the outside — if he hasn’t been involved in the Ministry of Defense and the Interior Ministry, in the army and police force,” says Mahmoud Saikal, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and a key member of the political opposition. He adds that this was “unfortunate because [Wardak and Mohammadi] are not too incompetent. They are O.K. They have seen the battlefield.”

At the same time, while the move has sent waves through the security and transition authorities, Saikal sees a positive side to the development: that the sacking is a positive indication of democracy working in Afghanistan. “The good news is that what parliament did was legal. It was orderly and went according to procedure. This was an exercise of democracy. Karzai did his best to tarnish the reputation of the Lower House and make them ineffective. Now we are seeing the re-emergence of the Lower House,” Saikal tells TIME.

As to who will replace the Ministers, the Afghan systems of patronage and plot and counterplot have already started rumors of conspiracy churning. “Zarar Ahmad Muqbel Osmani, the Minister of Counter Narcotics, was rumored to want the Ministry of Interior post last year, but in Afghanistan it’s difficult to tell which rumors are true,” says an Afghanistan expert who has worked in the country for 16 years and who, like others sources — including members of parliament — interviewed for this story point to how the departments are the gateways for lucrative contracts. “It will be difficult to replace either of them in a short space of time,” he continues, adding that other candidates would be perceived as equally corrupt, “weak and pointless.”

For the Defense Ministry, Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network says it is “realistic” that Army Chief of Staff General Sher Muhammad Karimi will be considered, since “he is from Paktia [a province that shares a frontier with Pakistan] and has taken a very tough stance on the border issue, spicing it up with nationalist declarations about Afghanistan’s borders.” Foschini adds, though, that Karimi’s political history as a member of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is problematic.

A poster plastered all over the hallways of the U.S. embassy in Kabul reads, “Keep Calm, and Transition.” With the date of the transition from fighting to mentoring to withdrawal creeping closer — and with no Afghan captains at the helm and no obvious candidates on the horizon — the posters may be harder and harder to heed.

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