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What's Hamid Karzai up to?

Afghan watchers are scratching their heads this week, trying to decipher the meaning of President Hamid Karzai’s decision to sack two of his most pro-American Cabinet members, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh.

The best guess I’ve heard among knowledgeable officials is that Karzai’s personnel moves may be part of a tilt toward Pakistan, in preparation for what he sees as an aggressive process of dialogue and reconciliation with Taliban factions that have their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The nominal reason for Karzai’s decision to fire the two ministers last Sunday was their failure to prevent a Taliban rocket attack on the June 2 opening day of Karzai’s “peace jirga” in Kabul. That attack did show a lapse in security, with grenades reportedly landing 15 yards from a tent where Karzai was meeting with senior U.S. officials. But it was hardly the first such security breach.

Those who see a broader Karzai agenda here cite several factors. The first is that Saleh, the intelligence chief, is a particular antagonist of Pakistan’s feared Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, known as the ISI. “He is hated by ISI,” says one official bluntly. Some ISI officials regard Saleh as an Indian agent, though they present no evidence to support that claim.

Saleh has been a favorite of the CIA, even as he drew fire from the Pakistanis. The agency is said to have pressured Karzai to keep Saleh in the intelligence post last year after he won re-election. Saleh had openly expressed his support for Karzai’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who like Saleh is a Tajik and was mentored by the charismatic militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Indeed, Saleh is said to have a portrait of Massoud displayed prominently on the wall of his office at the National Directorate of Security, as the Afghan spy service is known.

The CIA has pushed for better relations between the Afghan intelligence service and its Pakistani counterpart. There have been visits, pledges of cooperation and efforts to improve liaison -- but it’s still a testy relationship, at best.

Atmar has been another Washington favorite. He made friends in the West when he was education minister, fighting for women’s rights in education and a modern curriculum. He has been viewed as less successful as interior minister, where he was responsible for the Afghan National Police, a force that has consistently disappointed U.S. commanders.

A final factor bolstering the idea that Karzai is tilting toward Islamabad is the recent visit to Kabul by General Pervez Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, accompanied by Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI. They are said to have met with Karzai in late May, after the Afghan president’s visit to Washington but before the June 2 opening of the jirga. One purpose of the visit, it seems, was to explore a joint strategy for reconciliation.

By David Ignatius  | June 9, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Dear Mr. Ignatius:

Name your "knowledgeable officials" or further describe their access to policy.

Otherwise your column remains as useless as your article on LTG Pasha who did not want to be quoted.

Try "anonymous sources" (and shame yourself) or don't write stuff that you cannot substantiate in print.

My feeling is that you write as you do, neutrally, to keep doors open. But there are ways to write good columns without hiding propagandists, deceivers and (perhaps) liars beneath your by-line.

Posted by: harper-d | June 9, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Today's UK Guardian publishes an article by Jon Boone which also ascribes one reason for the dismissal as Karzai's "softer attitude" towards Pakistan. The sources include unnamed former aides to Saleh. Anyone interested in Afghanistan is wondering why these two most effective and respected officials were fired. The offical explanation for the firing does not ring true.

Posted by: donegal1 | June 9, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

"What's Hamid Karzai up to?"

Oh, probably about 5 foot 5.

Posted by: lindalovejones | June 9, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

An interesting article. As an American who has served his country for 20 years in uniform, I am impressed by someone who goes beyond the Admin. propaganda to see what is really happening in a foreign country which we have very, very little understanding of their way of life. Afghans are not west coast liberals or right wing wing nuts. As foreign as that concept is to the right and left, they have their own customs and way of dealing with crisis. Karzai will do what he has to do to retain power. If that involves dealing with those in Pakistan -- live with it!! Don't send my sons daughters and grand kids to try to make them comply with our view of their life. Sometimes we Americans are just obnoxious.

Posted by: Fergie303 | June 9, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

President Hamid Karzai has reached almost in the corner with little room to maneuver on peace negotiations with moderate Taliban . The sooner Karzai reaches an accord with Pashtuns' demands and aspirations , the easier it would be for him to expand a political compromised set up and terms of agreement with moderate Taliban . After almost nine years of the War on terrorism , economic assistance of billions of dollars and thousands of civil and military advisers assistance , the state of governance in Afghanistan has not improved . The situation in Afghanistan is closer to be in turmoil and in chaos sooner than later , of July 2011 , the date set for the start of troops withdrawal . There are more than enough security and political reasons for Pakistan to be concerned about the future of Afghanistan . Pakistan naturally is an interested party , to any short or long term security and political arrangements in Afghanistan . It is about time for the concerned policy makers to give Pashtun factor a priority in their consideration of AfPak strategy.

Posted by: dmfarooq | June 9, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

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