Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Crazy Like a Fox

In a fit of anger, Hamid Karzai axes his director of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. But is there method to his madness?

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The puzzling resignation on June 6 of President Hamid Karzai's two security chiefs -- Amrullah Saleh, the director of intelligence, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister -- has left many Afghan hands wondering about what was behind their brusque departure.

The puzzling resignation on June 6 of President Hamid Karzai’s two security chiefs — Amrullah Saleh, the director of intelligence, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister — has left many Afghan hands wondering about what was behind their brusque departure.

The ostensible cause for their resignation is that Karzai was furious that the Taliban were able to fire rockets inside the peace jirga last week where he and 1,600 delegates were meeting to discuss negotiations with the Taliban. In the aftermath, he took Saleh and Atmar to task, but was apparently dissatisfied with their explanations for how this happened. By all accounts, the meetings were volatile and everyone left angry. At his news conference announcing his resignation, Saleh hinted that there were other reasons for his leaving.

Yesterday, I received a letter from a well-placed Afghan insider that sheds some new light on the bizarre series of events that led to Saleh and Atmar’s departure:

"You are not going to believe this but Karzai believes that ISAF [NATO] was trying to scare or warn him by lobbing rockets at the Jirga tent on June 2. He believes that once ISAF was assured of him not making an anti-Western statement the rocketing stopped.  He then went on to accuse his two security chiefs (Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Attmar) of colluding with ISAF.  

Amrullah rejected this outright arguing that if they wanted to get Karzai they would not have used an old rocket! He also declared that he could no longer work for him (the President).

He then walked out and resigned in a press conference later in the afternoon. Atmar followed suit an hour later.

A number of issues you need to bear in mind:

The Pakistani’s second condition (following the closure of the Indian consulates) was the removal of Amrullah Saleh as Intel Chief (whom they saw as anti-Pakistani).

Amrullah’s removal will have regional implications given his thorough understanding of both Afghanistan and the region (Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran). He was very, very efficient and probably one of the most intelligent individuals I have come across (with a photographic memory). More importantly for the government, he delivered.

Within the NDS (National Directorate of Security) he was seen as fair, charismatic, honest and hardworking — someone who despised nepotism and nationalism (ethnic). He also led from the front and did not shy away from speaking his mind both publicly and privately (with the President).

I believe that his loss will be a tremendous blow to Afghanistan not just vis a vis terrorism but also in relation to crime (theft, kidnappings) and corruption (where he played an important role albeit one that was ignored more often than not by the President).

Security will be a major challenge for both the Kabul Conference (later this month) and September’s elections (campaigning is due to commence within weeks). How the hell will the government deal with this challenge?"

The loss of Atmar and Saleh will certainly be felt in the coming months. But what this letter really offers is perhaps the best, recent insight into Karzai’s increasingly puzzling behavior.

In 2009, I published a profile of President Hamid Karzai in the New York Times Magazine called "Karzai in His Labyrinth." The title said it all. Although Karzai may have entered office as a charismatic, able politician, over the last few years he has grown more and more isolated, suspicious, and paranoid vis-à-vis the United States, Pakistan, and Britain. He is constantly accusing his ministers of treachery and berating them in public. Several times of late, he has turned on Saleh and accused him of conspiring against him. The Taliban rocket attacks on the peace jirga were evidently the final straw.

Saleh belongs to the Tajik ethnic group and was close to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik Northern Alliance leader assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. This affiliation has unnerved Karzai, who since 2005 has been convinced that an array of Northern Alliance power brokers are out to unseat him. In 2007, he turned on his chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, and his then minister of education, Hanif Atmar, accusing both men of plotting against him and of being British agents. They both resigned. Karzai apologized the next day, but the damage was done. Ludin went off as ambassador to the Nordic countries and now Canada. Karzai and Atmar did not speak for months, but eventually Karzai agreed to bring him on as interior minister — under heavy encouragement from the West.

Many have accused Karzai of being mad or paranoid when he lashes out and threatens to join the Taliban or when he pulls his crazy face and loses his temper. But it is worth remembering that the mad act has its benefits. It gets him what he wants without him having to take full responsibility for his actions. And, with the U.S. talk of pulling out next summer, Karzai is planning for his future, a future that will inevitably depend on good relations with Pakistan and the Taliban.

Elizabeth Rubin is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

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