KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday removed two of the country's top security officials - each with longtime ties to the Americans - over last week's attack on a national conference to explore peace with the Taliban.
The removals of the interior minister and intelligence chief surprised U.S. officials and may cause major disruption within Afghanistan's intelligence and security establishment at a critical juncture - as the U.S. and NATO escalate the war and the Afghan government commits to offering peace to the insurgents. The move is likely to fuel speculation over differences within the Karzai administration over its efforts to reconcile with the Taliban.
The head of the National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, was a senior figure in the Northern Alliance that helped the U.S. 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.
"It's a very significant event. There will be a massive fall-out from these resignations both in the Interior Ministry and the NDS as alliances are shuffled," said Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group think tank.
"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.
Replacing the security chiefs comes after Karzai's May visit to Washington which had eased strains in the bilateral relationship. U.S. officials say the Afghan delegation had impressed with their preparations for the visit, widely seen as a boost to Karzai after a turbulent year marred by prolonged controversy over his re-election in a fraud-marred poll last August.
"Both the ministers of interior and intelligence are people we admire and whose service we appreciate," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. He also noted the U.S. had favored Atmar for the interior ministry job.
But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces
in Afghanistan, said in a statement he respected the Afghan president's authority to make this "difficult decision."
He said he remained confident in Karzai's "ability to appoint credible replacements to lead these critical organizations."
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-Qaida.
British-educated Atmar, a former education minister, was first appointed interior minister in a 2008 Cabinet reshuffle aimed at rooting out high-level corruption in Karzai's government. He was reappointed after Karzai's re-election.
Sunday's resignations were a surprise - not least as the attack on the jirga was thwarted. Security officials have rarely faced punishment or resigned over previous major attacks in the capital.
Two Taliban militants fired rockets where some 1,500 delegates - including lawmakers, tribal and religious chiefs - had gathered in a grand tent. One of the missiles landed about 200 yards (meters) away, but no delegates were hurt. The militants were later killed in a gunbattle with security forces in a house about a mile (1.5 kilometers) away.
Saleh said evidence showed that the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban faction with close ties to al-Qaida, was behind the attack.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the two attackers were able to breach security by dressing as a couple - one in a man's street clothes and the other in a woman's burqa, and clutching a Kalashnikov rifle and a grenade launcher wrapped up in cloth like a swaddled baby.
Karzai's office said in a statement he had accepted the resignations because Atmar and Saleh had given unsatisfactory explanations. He appointed their deputies Munir Mangal at the interior ministry and Ibrahim Spinzada, an engineer, at intelligence as acting chiefs.
Atmar said he and Saleh met with Karzai on Sunday for two-and-a-half hours. When the president said that leadership had been lacking in the security measures, Atmar said he offered his resignation.
"The president of Afghanistan has lost trust in our capability to protect national events," Saleh told reporters in the capital, after what he described as a "tough conversation" with Karzai.
Saleh said there were "tens of other reasons" that he resigned, but he declined to give any of them, saying that doing so would have repercussions for those still working in the government.
It's unclear if the tentative push for peace to end the insurgency has so far caused any fractures in Karzai's government. His ethnic Tajik and Uzbek allies from the Northern Alliance who fought the Taliban for years will be less sympathetic to cutting a deal than his supporters among the Pashtuns - Karzai's own ethnic community and the overwhelming majority of the insurgents.
Washington supports Karzai's plans to win over lower-rung militants but remains skeptical about negotiations with insurgent leaders - although such a strategy could be key to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
U.S. officials contend the Taliban leadership - which is demanding the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan - feels little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war which is only growing ever more bloody nearly nine years after it began.
Karzai made his first official response to the jirga Sunday by ordering a review of all cases of Taliban suspects in Afghan jails and the release of those detained on doubtful evidence.
The decree did not directly address the issue of the hundreds of Afghans being held in U.S. military custody.
Spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the U.S. military was discussing with the government an approach to all the jirga's recommendations. He noted that the American military had already started the process of handing control of the main U.S. prison in Afghanistan, at Bagram Air Field, to the government.
On Sunday, five NATO troops - including four Americans - were killed in three separate incidents, the coalition said.
Three U.S. troops died in a vehicle accident in southern Afghanistan, and a fourth was killed in an insurgent attack in the country's east, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale. The fifth NATO service member - who was not immediately identified - was killed when a makeshift bomb exploded in southern Afghanistan.