Afghan parliament votes to oust key ministers
Kabul, Afghanistan • The Afghan parliament voted Saturday to dismiss the country's defense and interior ministers, a move that threatens to throw the country's security apparatus into confusion as foreign forces withdraw.
The vote demanded the dismissal of two of President Hamid Karzai's key security lieutenants: Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, one of the top Afghan officials most trusted by Washington, and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
The votes of no confidence come at a critical time in the war, when Afghan police and soldiers are increasingly taking over responsibility from departing international troops, who are scheduled to leave Afghanistan or move into support roles by the end of 2014.
Separately, the U.S.-led coalition said two NATO service members were killed Saturday in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan. No other information was released. So far this year, 268 U.S. and NATO troops have died in the war.
Legislators faulted the defense and interior ministers for what they view as the government's weak response to cross-border attacks that Afghans blame on the Pakistani military, with lawmakers asking why Afghanistan has not launched a military response. The parliamentarians also asked the ministers about allegations of corruption within their ministries and alleged security lapses that led to recent assassinations of top officials.
The parliament then passed a measure to remove Wardak by a vote of 146 to 72. A separate vote of no confidence on Mohammadi passed 126 to 90. Both measures needed 124 votes to pass.
"Both ministers are disqualified from their positions and we request His Excellency President Karzai to introduce new ministers for these positions as soon as possible," Abdul Raouf Abrahimi, speaker of the lower house of parliament, said after the vote.
It is unclear if the two will immediately leave their posts. Parliament occasionally flexes its muscle to thwart Karzai's policies or appointments, but the constitution places most power in the president's hands.
Karzai's office issued a three-sentence statement acknowledging that Article 92 of the Afghan constitution gives the parliament the authority to disqualify ministers. Karzai's statement did not express any support or regret for the no confidence votes, saying only that the president would "make decisions about the disqualified ministers" after he meets with his national security team on Sunday.
In past no-confidence votes, Karzai has simply kept other ministers in their jobs in an acting capacity and dragged out the process of nominating replacements.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the parliament's action, referring questions to the Afghan government.
Among the criticisms of the two ministers was the government's tepid response to allegations that the Pakistani military launched hundreds of shells and rockets into the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar last month, sometimes hitting homes and killing civilians along frontier areas where insurgents have staged cross-border attacks.
Both countries have accused each other of firing onto their territory along the disputed border, which is not well marked.
Paksitan denies deliberately shelling Afghan territory, saying it only fires in response to attacks against its own troops from across the border.
Karzai has been careful not to openly blame the Pakistani military for the artillery barrage. Interior Minister Mohammedi and other top-ranking administration officials, however, have explicitly blamed Pakistan for the shelling.
Afghan military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, a former deputy interior minister, said he thinks the dismissal vote was less about the controversy over the cross-border attacks than a show of force by parliament.
He suspects that the lawmakers were reacting to allegations that they were a "useless parliament" that could not make decisions.
"So suddenly, the parliament made a decision to gain dignity from the nation and show that they can oust top security ministers," Khalid said. "These two ministers became the victims of the weakness of this government."
However, the parliament's action drew praise from Noor ul-Haq Holomi, a former general in the Afghan army and onetime lawmaker from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, who said the lawmakers acted where Karzai failed to do so on corruption.
"There are others in this Cabinet who are corrupt. All these people are corrupt. They just sit and collect the money," he said.
"For 11 years, Mr. Karzai did nothing. Why didn't he say anything?" Holomi said. "He's lost the trust of the people."
Mohammad Iqbal Safi, a lawmaker from Kapisa province, said parliament is ready to summon other ministers to answer allegations of corruption.
"The parliament will not be silent," he said. "We are going to question all these officials accused."
Azizullah Ludin, the chief of an Afghan anti-corruption unit, said he has presented Afghan officials with allegations against four high-ranking officials, including Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal.
Ludin said his office was investigating sizable deposits that businesses and individuals made to Zakhilwal's bank accounts. Tolo Television, which was first to report the probe last week, showed viewers copies of bank statements from 2007 to 2011 that Tolo said showed more than $1 million being transferred to Zakhilwal, some of which it said was later moved out of the country.
Zakhilwal, who was educated at Canadian universities, has denied any allegations of wrongdoing, saying that the money in the accounts was earned from his work as a consultant for international institutions and as an author.
Both Wardak and Mohammadi are longstanding members of Karzai's administration.
Wardak, who studied in the U.S. and speaks English fluently, has been long backed by Washington and the NATO military coalition. He has been defense minister since late 2004, and was deputy defense minister before that. In the 1980s, he was a well-known leader of mujahedeen fighters against the Soviet and Afghan communists.
Wardak has overseen massive growth of the army now 185,125-strong. In recent years, tens of thousands of soldiers have been recruited, given literacy and military training and sent to fight alongside foreign forces.
Mohammadi is an ethnic Tajik and former commander in the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, joining the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the following decade. He served as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army from 2002 to 2010.
As interior minister, he has been tasked with professionalizing the various Afghan police units, and the Afghan Border Police fall under his responsibility.