(CNSNews.com) – As Afghan President Hamid Karzai takes first steps towards implementing recommendations of last week’s national “peace jirga,” the departure of two top government officials respected by Western governments raises new concerns about the direction in which the country is moving.
The resignation of spy chief Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar was ostensibly the result of security breaches that allowed the Taliban to launch an unsuccessful attack on the jirga, but the two men were viewed in Western capitals as having played effective roles in the campaign against the insurgents.
The meeting of more than 1,500 tribal, religious and business leaders ended Friday with proposals aimed at fostering reconciliation, including negotiations with the Taliban and the removal of the names of “those in opposition” from a U.N. blacklist.
Authorities were also urged, as a goodwill gesture, to free Afghan detainees whose links to insurgents have not been definitively proven.
Although the recommendations are not binding on the government Karzai, who during the jirga referred to “Taliban brothers,” on Sunday ordered a review of the cases of people detained “for links with the armed opposition.”
A committee, led by the justice minister, will release those detainees found to have been held “without sufficient legally binding criminal evidence,” Karzai’s office said.
The jirga participants called on what they described as “the disaffected in armed opposition” to renounce violence and “dissociate themselves from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul cautiously welcomed the jirga discussions, reiterating support for a “process of reconciliation and reintegration that seeks to bring back into society those who cease violence, break ties with al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups, and live under the Afghan Constitution, including provisions that protect the rights of all Afghan men and women.”
The jirga recommendation about the removal of militants from a U.N. terrorist list does not specify names, but the list, which originates from a pre-9/11 Security Council resolution, includes more than 130 Taliban-linked figures, from Mullah Mohammed Omar down, as well as more than 300 individuals and entities linked to al-Qaeda.
The designated are subject to an international travel ban, assets freeze and arms embargo.
“The government in agreement with the international community should take serious action in getting the names of those in opposition removed from the consolidated blacklist,” the jirga recommendation says, according to an English translation provided by Karzai’s office.
The list of recommendations calls for all of the jirga proposals to be included in the agenda for next month’s Kabul Conference, a high-level gathering of mostly Western governments which Karzai hopes will back plans to negotiate with insurgents.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Thursday voiced cautious U.S. support for Karzai’s reconciliation efforts.
Speaking after talks with her Indian counterpart, she said it was “painstaking work to try to identify those with whom there may be the opportunity for some political reconciliation, and others for whom there is no prospect.”
Of the latter group, she said, “they have to be defeated and deterred from their continuing violence against the people of Afghanistan, against our troops. And they have to be rooted out of their safe havens in Pakistan where they are being a very grave threat to the government of Pakistan now.”
Taliban officials have refused to open talks with Kabul until foreign forces leave Afghanistan. Currently some 130,000 U.S. and NATO troops are deployed in the country, with an additional 20,000 expected in the summer.
Effective, ‘dedicated to reform’
As the jirga opened last Wednesday, Taliban fighters launched a rocket and gunfire attack and attempted suicide bombing aimed at the venue, a large tent in a Kabul suburb. None of the jirga participants was hurt. In an ensuing gunfight, two insurgents were shot dead and a third was captured, officials said.
The abortive attack had an unexpected outcome Sunday when it was announced that Saleh and Atmar had resigned.
Saleh told reporters he had submitted his resignation as general director of National Security because he had lost Karzai’s trust as a result of the attack.
He said he and Atmar had briefed the president on the security preparations for the jirga, and the subsequent “success in killing the two terrorists and capturing the facilitators,” but Karzai had not been satisfied.
He had therefore felt unable to continue in his post. He also said there were “tens” of reasons for leaving his position, but would not elaborate on others.
Saleh has held the top intelligence position for six years and his close relationship with U.S. intelligence dates back to before 9/11, when he was an aide to veteran Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. (Massoud was assassinated on the eve of 9/11, presumably by al-Qaeda as a gift to its Taliban ally.)
Atmar, the interior minister since 2008 and a former education minister, has overseen the crucial training of the Afghan police forces. U.S. officials have frequently praised him for efforts to combat corruption. Atmar was one of the few ministers in Karzai’s second cabinet to win parliamentary approval early this year, obtaining the second highest number of lawmakers’ votes.
A Congressional Research Service report in April described Atmar and two other ministers as those who were “believed to be dedicated to reforming their ministries and weeding out official corruption.”
“U.S. embassy officials suggest these cabinet ministers are the best members of what they consider the most effective cabinet Karzai has had since he became leader in 2001, and were heartened that they were reappointed to the cabinet in December 2009 and confirmed by the National Assembly,” it said.
If Atmar and Saleh had earned the respect of Western governments they were also both unpopular with the Taliban.
Saleh also has long been a vocal critical of Pakistan, particularly its ISI intelligence agency, accusing it of ongoing efforts to destabilize Afghanistan and collusion with the Taliban. (The ISI helped to set up the Taliban during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan was one of just three countries to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul. Islamabad only severed those ties under U.S. pressure after 9/11.)