Karzai Defends Afghan Security Shake-Ups

President Hamid Karzai's decision to fire the Afghan interior minister and intelligence chief caught many in Kabul by surprise. Karzai blamed the two officials for failing to prevent the Taliban attack on last week's peace jirga. But they were highly respected by U.S. and other Western officials in the Afghan capital.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with a shake-up in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai forced out two of his top security officials. The move comes after they failed to prevent attacks on a high profile summit in Kabul.

But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the firings also suggest discord over Karzai's desire to hold talks with the Taliban.

(Soundbite of explosion)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The Afghan capital felt like a war zone last week when the Taliban fired rockets and dispatched suicide bombers to disrupt an important national peace conference here. Security officials scrambled to explain how the attacks happened when thousands of policemen and soldiers were on the streets keeping watch.

At a news conference, interior ministry spokesman Zamarai Bashary defended their actions.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Mr. ZAMARAI BASHARY (Interior Ministry Spokesman, Afghanistan): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: He said security forces managed to stop other rockets from being launched and arrested nine would-be bombers even before the conference began. But when interior minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh tried explaining that to Karzai at the presidential palace, he was unmoved.

Rejecting their excuses, the Afghan president left them no choice but to resign. Their departures caught U.S. officials by surprise, even though relations between Karzai and the two men were said to be tense, especially over his proposed talks with the Taliban. Both have spent years fighting the insurgence and Saleh was a major figure in the northern alliance that helped drive the Taliban from power.

The U.S. and its NATO allies were close to the interior minister and intelligence chief. They viewed them as competent and eloquent in an Afghan government widely accused of being ineffective and corrupt. During the interior minister's tenure, kidnappings of foreigners and Afghans dropped dramatically. He also cracked down on corrupt police officials, yet no Western officials criticized Karzai for forcing the men out.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described it as an internal matter for Afghans. He did urge Karzai to find replacements for Atmar and Saleh of an equal caliber.

At a press conference today, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer said the president had little choice but to accept their resignations, given the danger he, other top Afghan officials and foreign diplomats faced at last week's conference.

Mr. WAHEED OMER (President Karzai Spokesman): And this could have been a national crisis. Someone had to take responsibility for this. And we hope that both these important people who had been very trusted, who had been important figures over the past eight, nine years, that they will have another window of opportunity where they can serve the people of Afghanistan. And, of course, the president is going to look into how this could be done.

NELSON: Karzai, meanwhile, cancelled his own news conference this morning to discuss the matter. His office released a statement a short while later saying the president had left on a state visit to Turkey.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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