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On Wednesday August 29, the dismissal of Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil was officially confirmed. The news, which first began circulating some 48 hours earlier on BBC Persian, was met with shock by many Afghans in the capital city of Kabul. A majority of the members of the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament were so ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday August 29, the dismissal of Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil was officially confirmed. The news, which first began circulating some 48 hours earlier on BBC Persian, was met with shock by many Afghans in the capital city of Kabul.

A majority of the members of the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament were so outraged by the news that they immediately began drafting a demand letter to President Karzai to ask him to clarify the logic behind the dismissal, so widely respected was Nabil’s tenure.

Some Members of Parliament (MPs), including the acting speaker of the house Haji Zahir Qadir, a Pashtun strongman from eastern Afghanistan, went further, demanding that Nabil be reinstated as the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

Around the capital, many social media outlets published opinion pieces expressing the widespread fear that Nabil’s dismissal would be disastrous for the national security of Afghanistan.

Many Afghans wondered why in a time of growing insecurity, evidenced by the increase in terrorist attacks in and around the capital, the president would deal such a blow to the nation’s main defense against the insurgency.

According to Nabil himself, his dismissal was routine. President Karzai, he indicated, wanted to change the NDS head every two years, and because he was aware of this he did not contest the action.

Other high-ranking officials corroborated Nabil’s account, although they would not go on the record.

The official account, however, fails to reconcile the fact that Nabil only served some eight months in the position. Also notably absent from the statement about the dismissal was the fact that Nabil’s appointment was approved by an overwhelming majority of the lower house: 208 out of a total of 249 votes. It is the apparent inconsistency between the official account and the reality that has perplexed so many Afghans and left them wondering whether there are other unstated reasons that led to Nabil’s dismissal.

Nabil’s accession to the highest ranks of the Afghan government was not typical to say the least. Unlike most high-ranking officials, he had no family connection to President Karzai. He began his ascent to the top serving as a junior staffer in the Presidential Palace, eventually making his way to the top of the President’s Protection Force (PPF), where he served for six years. During that time he remained a virtually unknown figure outside of the innermost presidential circle.

Inside sources say that because of his quiet efficiency in the PPF, Nabil was President Karzai’s first choice to replace his predecessor at the NDS, Amrullah Saleh, who had resigned over disagreements with Karzai.

According to those who have worked closely with Nabil, he is widely respected for his frankness and honesty, traits that are not always apparent, as he is reluctant to promote himself and his achievements.

Nabil also refuses to take ethno-centric positions, making him something of a lone ranger in a capital often consumed by tribalism and clannishness. While many Afghans who have watched him closely have taken comfort in his lack of ethnic or sectarian partisanship, his objectivity may have left him vulnerable, without the type of inside supporters on whom he could rely to promote his cause inside the president’s inner circles.

Moreover, prior to Nabil’s dismissal he had intensified efforts to rout out suspected Pakistani and Iranian spies at the highest levels of the Afghan government, making him a possible target of some of Afghanistan’s neighbors and their emissaries inside the country.

Earlier this month some Pakistani senior officials went so far as to accuse the NDS of plotting to attack strategic targets inside Lahore and Islamabad. Although there was no proof offered to support these claims, the Pakistani reaction itself may have been telling. Whatever it was the NDS under Nabil was doing, it was enough to ruffle the feathers of these various Pakistani officials.

Some Afghan analysts believe that it was the pressure that such outside powers were able to exert on the Afghan leadership via their domestic interest groups that led to Nabil’s demise.

Other Afghans believe that Nabil’s departure is just one of many upsets that are slated to take place. In the past month, rumors of other possible high-ranking changes have surfaced daily on Facebook, Twitter, and in other media. On August 4, for example, president Karzai issued a decree that  replaced Nabil by Asadullah Khaled, the current minister of tribal affairs; Interior Minister Bismillah Khan by  Mojtaba Patang, deputy minister of Afghan Public Protection Forces will replace; Bismillah Khan  is named as the minister of defense; while there are speculations that further changes will occur with the president’s chief of staff, Karim Khorram, will replace Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the head of the Afghan Independent Commission (IEC); and Manawi will be made Attorney General.

This long list of changes is seen to be the beginning of a broad transformation of the country’s political landscape that will culminate in the presidential elections of 2014. From this perspective, Nabil’s dismissal is regarded as part of the president’s survivalist overhaul, which some see as his attempt to block what should otherwise be a stable and democratic transfer of power. They see an Afghan president trying to concentrate power in the hands of the Karzai or Popalzai clans, a move similar to what Vladimir Putin did in Russia with Dmitry Medvedev.

In this scenario, there is speculation that President Karzai is looking to Qayom Karzai as his successor, or if he meets with too much opposition, perhaps paving the way for an alternative Popalzai or Kandahari president.

Whether he will be successful in his power grab is another question. Already, the president’s aspirations for 2014 are being challenged by many opposition figures, and by his fellow Pashtuns, some of whom have criticized him vociferously. Haji Zahir Qadir and other leading Pashtun figures outside the Kandahar region, for example, are his loudest critics. If these voices gain support, President Karzai’s ploys could backfire and move the Pashtun center of power from the south to the east or in between.

As beloved as Nabil may be in many circles, the National Directorate of Security itself still looms as a dark force in the minds of many Afghans. Ten years of democratic rule have not been sufficient to erase the deep memories of what the organization was like during the previous eras of communist, warlord, and Taliban rule.

To change that image, many believe that it is critical that the NDS cleanse its ranks and replace them with younger, more educated Afghans who do not have the same blood on their hands that many of their elders do. These are the types of changes that Nabil was attempting to make in the organization, the types of changes that earned him the respect of so many that yearn for a more modern and progressive Afghanistan, one that protects their rights and provides them opportunities as citizens, regardless of ethnicity, sect, or tribal affiliation.

They point to the hard work he was doing in places like Ghazni to rout out the Taliban and the insurgents who have been wreaking havoc on the general population there. His plan was to motivate Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban and other extremists in the heartland, and outside Afghan borders.

To many Afghans, Nabil’s dismissal is more evidence that they are losing the battle for their country, and a painful betrayal by a democratically-elected president who now seems bent on hurting the country if that will allow him and his kind to keep their monopoly on power. It’s a sad time for Afghan patriots and a sadder one for Afghanistan as a whole.

Waliullah Rahmani is an expert on international security and terrorism. He is currently running the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

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