Why the minister cannot sign anything
Who will replace the two resigning security ministers in the Karzai cabinet?
Everyone in Kabul is still talking about the sudden departures of Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar and Intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh.
These men, two out of the three most senior security ministers in the Karzai cabinet, were among the officials most trusted by the Americans and their allies.
The focus now is on who will replace them and how long it will take.
The two posts are absolutely key to the success or failure of the Obama strategy in Afghanistan.
For the time being both positions have been temporarily filled by the two deputies; General Munir Mangal at Interior, and Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada at the National Directorate of Security (or NDS - Afghanistan’s intelligence agency).
The main plank of the Obama plan is to build up the size and capabilities of the Afghan Security forces, so that they can begin to take over control when the planned drawdown of US forces begins in July 2011.
Everyone knows the clock is ticking – that date is just over a year from now.
The Interior minister’s job is central to this, because the police are still years behind the Afghan Army in terms of their competence and strength.
Atmar had been leading police reform, but high-level sources tell me that for now it is impossible for the acting minister, General Mangal to do anything but “tread water”.
As a temporary minister, Mangal has no authority to sign official decrees. Before his resignation, Atmar was about to sign documents giving all police NCOs and officers formal written contracts of employment. Remarkably, until now only patrolmen, not their superior, have had to sign employment papers, detailing responsibilities and regulations.
The role of NDS chief is also very important if Obama is to achieve his goals on time.
One part of the military strategy, drawn by US and Nato commander, General Stanley McChrystal is only ever hinted at in public.
McChrystal has ordered an increase in the tempo of special force operations, with the current focus around the southern city of Kandahar.
In the many ways, the General is following the template of Iraq, where as commander of the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) he masterminded “black ops” carried out against both Al Qaeda and Shia fighters.
How long will it take to fill these posts? Karzai already has eleven ministries, where an acting official is in charge, and parliamentary confirmation is needed, before a permanent minister can take office.
One assumes the President will make the Interior minister job a priority. (The job of NDS chief does not need to approved by the Parliament)
However, in the past, when selecting senior cabinet members, the Afghan leader has normally taken plenty of time to consider his options.
It raises the possibility that Karzai will not have come up with his pick, in the next week before parliament is due to head to its summer recess, during which new elections for MPs will be held. Parliament is not supposed to convene again until after those parliamentary elections, due to be held on September 20th.
An emergency recall of parliament is possible, but a senior Nato source has told me they fear the Interior minister post may not be permanently filled for a month or two.
Kabul is awash with rumours about who will replace Atmar and Saleh. General Mangal is not thought likely to be a strong candidate for the Interior minister post on a permanent basis.
In part, this is because he was a senior officer in the old communist regime. However, Karzai is said to hold him in some regard, because of his conduct at the time of the collapse of the government of the former President Najibullah.
Mangal was then serving in Karzai’s hometown of Kandahar, and made the brave decision to hand over his weapons to the Mujahedeen forces, avoiding further unnecessary bloodshed.
Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada is a possible contender to replace Saleh on a permanent basis.
His main strength is his link to Karzai – he is the President’s brother-in-law. However, Saleh’s shoes are big ones to fill. He has been in charge of the NDS for six and half years, and has had close links with the CIA since his days as a right-hand man to former Mujahedeen commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
There are plenty of other names being mentioned for both jobs. Ali Jalali served previously as Interior Minister, and the US military count him as a “very safe pair of hands”.
However, his links with the United States could be his downfall. He lives in the Washington DC area, working as a senior academic at the US National Defense University.
Senior parliamentarians have told me they believe he currently holds a US passport. Afghan law insists that cabinet ministers have to give up any second nationality they hold, before they are allowed to take office. He may be reluctant to do so.
General Hiluluddin Hilal is a former deputy minister at Interior and an MP, whose name is being bandied around by a number of his parliamentary colleagues, and there is even talk that the current Army chief of staff, General Bismullah Khan might be persuaded to move to Interior to take the top job.
If Spinzada is unsuccessful, other candidates for the NDS role include Asadullah Khaled, the former governor of both Kandahar, and his home province of Ghazni. He was a key player in the Karzai re-election campaign, and worked very closely with the President’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, when he served in Kandahar.
Another intruiging possibility was suggested to me by one senior member of parliament. He told me that Karzai had more problems with Atmar, than with Saleh, and that perhaps Saleh might be brought back, this time as Minister of Interior.
In his most recent news conference, Presidential spokesman Waheed Omer stressed that it would be good if both Saleh and Atmar returned to public service.
In my view, though, Saleh’s immediate return is unlikely because he has deep reservations about aspects of the current plans to start peace overtures towards the Taliban, and their sometime allies, Hizb-i-Islami.
It is likely that Karzai will not want to lose face by bringing either man back too soon. Some in his camp think that he has been strengthened by what has happened, a demonstration of a tough President, who will not tolerate security lapses.
However, what has been weakened once again is Karzai’s relationship with his western backers.
Their new strategy, demonstrated at last month’s Washington conference, was to fete Karzai with pomp and ceremony, assigning him an almost regal role, while doing the real business of government with his key ministers.
That policy has now failed – and the Afghan government’s two most capable officials are the victims.