By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 7, 2010; A10
KABUL -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday forced out his spy chief and his interior minister, a surprise move that eliminates two key American allies as the United States deepens its engagement here.
The departures of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh are likely to become an additional irritant in the already rocky relationship between Karzai and Washington.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said both officials were "people we admire and whose service we appreciate." Atmar, Morrell added, "was one of the ministers we cared about."
Atmar earned the esteem of many U.S. officials by taking steps to reform a ministry plagued by corruption when he came into the job early last year. The Interior Ministry oversees the country's fledgling police forces, whose training is a key focus of the 30,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying to Afghanistan.
Many of the newly deployed troops are being sent to Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Karzai administration is trying to negotiate an armistice with the Taliban, a concept U.S. officials support in principle but are wary of in practice. Both resignations Sunday appeared linked to the prospect of talks.
Atmar and Karzai had clashed in recent months over Karzai's reconciliation efforts, said a senior U.S. military official who worked closely with Atmar.
"Atmar really disagreed with the reintegration of the Taliban into the police and the army," the official said. "He had some problems with it, and, frankly, we agreed with him."
Atmar's name circulated as a potential presidential candidate last year, and he is widely known to have political ambitions.
Saleh has a close relationship with the CIA that dates to Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s. A former senior U.S. intelligence official said Saleh may have disagreed with Karzai's efforts to release some Taliban figures as a demonstration of his willingness to negotiate. "I can see Amrullah objecting to that," the former official said. "He was tough. He had a very clear view about what was required for security."
The former official said Saleh's departure is a blow to the Afghan spy service and is likely to be viewed as a setback within the CIA. "I would have viewed it as very bad news," the former official said.
Saleh, an ethnic Tajik, was a member of the Northern Alliance, the political and military movement that fought the Taliban during the civil war. As such, Karzai may have seen him as an obstacle in his efforts to persuade the Taliban to negotiate a cease-fire, said parliament member Khalid Pashtoon.
"Intel has a very important role in reconciliation," the lawmaker said. "Saleh was not the right person for this job. No Taliban would ever trust this man" to negotiate.
Karzai said in a statement that he lost confidence in both men after hearing their explanations of a security breach that permitted an attack on a large conference convened last week to discuss peace talks with the Taliban.
Atmar said Sunday night that he submitted his resignation after a three-hour meeting with Karzai during which the president grilled him and Saleh about Wednesday's attack. The attack -- which involved rockets and suicide bombers -- was thwarted, and no one other than the assailants was killed. It is highly unusual in Afghanistan for government officials to be forced out because of insurgent strikes, much less unsuccessful ones.
"Unfortunately, all of the explanations were not acceptable to the president, and that's why I presented my resignation," Atmar said at a news conference.
In his own news conference, Saleh hinted that there was more to the story. "There are tens of other internal reasons," he said, but he declined to elaborate.
Karzai, who was reelected last year amid allegations of widespread fraud, has made reaching a truce with the Taliban and other armed groups the key goal of his second term. Hours before disclosing the resignations, Karzai announced the formation of a committee to review the cases of prisoners held on flimsy evidence -- the first step to implementing recommendations from last week's conference.
Karzai said he appointed Deputy Interior Minister Munir Mangal as interim minister and Ibrahim Spinzada as the new spy chief.
Meanwhile, officials announced that five NATO soldiers, including four Americans, were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday. Three were killed in a vehicle accident in the south, the military said. The other two were killed in attacks in the south and the east, the military said.
Staff writers Craig Whitlock in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Greg Jaffe and Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.