- Associated Press - Sunday, June 6, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai’s office on Monday defended his decision to remove two of Afghanistan’s top security officials, conceding they would be missed but insisting they must be held accountable for a recent lapse — an attack on a major peace conference.

The resignations of the interior minister and intelligence chief on Sunday surprised Western officials and could cause disruption within Afghanistan’s intelligence and security establishment at a critical juncture as the United States and NATO escalate the war and the government formulates plans to negotiate peace with the insurgents.

The move is likely to fuel speculation over differences within the Karzai administration over its efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, including the possible release of hundreds of detained militant suspects.

The head of the National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, was a senior figure in the Northern Alliance, which helped the United States oust the Taliban regime in 2001. As a young man, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar served in Afghanistan’s Communist-era intelligence agency and fought mujahedeen opposed to the Soviet occupation.

Mr. Saleh and Mr. Atmar resigned Sunday to accept responsibility for lapses that allowed militants to launch an attack on a conference last week of some 1,500 dignitaries from across the country to discuss peace with the insurgents.

Rockets landed near the conference venue, but the attack was thwarted with no injuries to officials. Security officials rarely have faced punishment or resigned over previous major attacks in the capital and elsewhere.

Mr. Karzai left Afghanistan on Monday to attend an international conference in Spain, canceling a news conference he had scheduled earlier. His spokesman, Waheed Omer, insisted the security lapse at the conference was the only reason for the resignations.

“This could have been national chaos, a national crisis” if the attack had succeeded, Mr. Omer told reporters. “Somebody had to take responsibility for this.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking to reporters on his way to London, stepped gingerly in answering questions about the abrupt resignations of Mr. Saleh and Mr. Atmar, whom U.S. officials often singled out by name as examples of competent leadership in a government riven by corruption and patronage.

“It’s obviously an internal matter for the Afghans,” Mr. Gates said.

“I would just hope President Karzai will appoint in the place of those who have left people of equal caliber,” he said.

Mr. Saleh, an ethnic Tajik, had served as intelligence chief since 2004 and had a long-standing relationship with the CIA in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

British-educated Mr. Atmar, a former education minister, was first appointed interior minister in a 2008 Cabinet reshuffle aimed at rooting out high-level corruption in Mr. Karzai’s government. He was reappointed after Mr. Karzai’s re-election.

Mr. Karzai wants to offer incentives to low-level insurgents to lay down arms and to enter talks with Taliban leaders. Some critics worry Mr. Karzai may be willing to give up human rights and other advancements to strike a deal with the Taliban to end the conflict.

Washington is skeptical about opening talks with the Taliban until it has been weakened on the battlefield.

Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy on Afghanistan, on Monday voiced cautious support for peace overtures.

“We will support Afghan-led reconciliation,” Mr. Holbrooke told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Spain. “The U.S. and the international community are not interposing objections.”

But militants who enter the talks must renounce al Qaeda and accept the Afghan Constitution, he said.

Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group think tank, said Sunday’s resignations would cause instability within the police and intelligence services.

“They appear to be forced resignations and reflect significant worries of Karzai’s administration over the loyalty of those leading key security agencies in the country,” she said.

The resignations come as NATO tries to build up Afghanistan’s police and armed forces so it can hand over security and begin drawing down troops along Mr. Obama’s time line starting in mid-2011. As part of those plans, U.S. commanders are planning a major NATO operation soon in the Taliban’s heartland of Kandahar.

The Taliban have struck in Kandahar with a slew of bombings and assassinations of people seen as government allies — a counteroffensive to the NATO push.

On Monday, at least three suicide bombers attacked a police training center in Kandahar city, exploding a car bomb at the gate and then trying to storm through with guns blazing, officials said. All three militants were killed, and three police were wounded, officials said.

In Uruzgan province, meanwhile, a civilian car hit a roadside bomb early Monday, killing two men inside, provincial police Chief Juma Gul Himmat said.

Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Daniel Wools in Madrid and Anne Gearan, traveling with Mr. Gates, contributed to this report.


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