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