Afghanistan's intelligence chief and interior minister resigned Sunday to take responsibility for allowing militants to elude a massive security operation and launch an attack on last week's national peace conference.
President Hamid Karzai's office said in a statement he had accepted the resignations of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and National Directorate of Security, or NDS, chief Amrullah Saleh because they gave unsatisfactory explanations for last Wednesday's attack.
Taliban militants fired rockets at the conference where some 1,500 delegates — including lawmakers, tribal and religious chiefs — discussed how to resolve Afghanistan's nearly 9-year war. The militants then fought a gunbattle with security forces near the venue, and were killed. No delegates were hurt.
The surprise resignations are likely to cause major disruption within two key security agencies — the police and intelligence service — as the insurgency deepens and the United States ramps up its troop numbers in an attempt to turn around the war.
"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.
It also comes as the Afghan government, backed by the outcome of the peace conference, is committed to offering peace with the insurgents, which risks alienating former figures in the Northern Alliance — such as Saleh — who helped the United States oust the Taliban regime in 2001.
U.S. backed aides
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, travelling with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Azerbaijan, praised both Atmar and Saleh as "people we admire and whose service we appreciate."
He noted that Atmar was favored by Washington to take the job when Karzai formed his Cabinet last year.
"He was one of the ministers we cared about," Morrell said, adding that U.S. officials had a "very close working relationship" with Atmar.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said earlier Sunday that 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.
They were able to walk nearly one mile from a house they had rented in the capital to another building near the conference venue where they launched their attack, Bashary said.
"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.
"Our explanations did not convince President Karzai that we were competent," he said.
He said there were other reasons that he resigned, but he declined to give any of them, saying doing so would have repercussions for people still working in the government.
Saleh, an ethnic Tajik who had served as intelligence chief since 2004, said evidence showed that the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban faction with close ties to al-Qaida, was behind the attack on the conference, or jirga.
The statement from Karzai's office said the president had appointed Deputy Interior Minister Munir Mangal as acting interior minister and Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada as acting intelligence chief.
Bashary said two major errors occurred in the security for the jirga: insufficient intelligence reporting about the attackers' militant group and the failure of security forces to stop and search the couple.
"It goes against all customs for a man to search a woman, so the enemy took advantage of this," Bashary said.
Atmar, an ethnic Pashtun and former education minister, had been appointed in a 2008 Cabinet reshuffle aimed at curbing high-level corruption. British-educated and with a positive reputation among Western officials, Atmar was reappointed as the minister in charge of police after Karzai's re-election last year.
Taliban cases to be reviewed
Also Sunday, Karzai made his first official response to the jirga 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 U.S. prison on the edge of Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, to the Afghan government.
The conference recommended that Taliban prisoners be released if the evidence against them was shaky, as a goodwill gesture to encourage insurgent fighters to lay down their arms and as a precursor to peace talks with Taliban leaders.
Washington supports Karzai's plans to offer incentives to lower-rung militants but remains skeptical about Kabul seeking 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 it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.
Five NATO troops — including four Americans — died in three separate incidents Sunday, 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 the south.
In other violence, a suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorbike into a NATO convoy near the eastern city of Jalalabad, wounding one police officer and 12 civilians, Afghan officials said. NATO said one service member suffered minor shrapnel wounds. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Also Sunday, a roadside bomb hit a police truck on a main road in Kandahar province's Panjwai district, killing one police officer and two civilians, said local official Shah Baran Noorzai.
Meanwhile, NATO reported that airstrikes Saturday killed a Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar, who had close ties with Taliban and al-Qaida senior leaders and who arranged training for foreign fighters from Iran.