Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Political Cleavages over Pakistan: The NDS chief’s farewell

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

Rahmatullah Nabil, the chief of the country’s intelligence service, submitted his resignation on 10 December 2015. This now leaves two of the Afghan government’s four major security positions filled by acting officials (the second vacancy, for more than a year, is the defence minister’s position). Nabil’s position had presumably become untenable, after he publicly criticised president Ghani’s efforts to re-engage Pakistan and relaunch peace talks with the Taleban during his trip to Pakistan. The resignation highlights the political cleavages in Afghanistan’s political elite about the approach to peace talks and Pakistan’s role in them. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig takes a closer look.

Former NDS Chief Rahmatullah Nabil at a press conference in October 2015 Source: PAJHWOK/Fayaz OmarFormer NDS Chief Rahmatullah Nabil at a press conference in October 2015 Source: PAJHWOK/Fayaz Omar

Afghanistan’s latest appointment problem has been lingering for almost two weeks. On 9 December 2015, the chief of the National Directorate for Security (NDS), Rahmatullah Nabil, who had not accompanied President Ashraf Ghani on his trip to Pakistan, went public with a scathing head-on criticism of Pakistan. In a Facebook post, Nabil implied the neighbouring country’s continuing support for Taleban insurgents had played a crucial role in the Taleban’s latest battlefield victories in his country. He did so while his boss, the president, was at that very moment trying to secure Pakistani buy-in for a new round of direct talks with the Taleban. The publicity that has surrounded the resignation amounted to a direct criticism of the president’s course on ‘reconciliation’ with the Taleban through Pakistan – an approach that is also being encouraged by the US and China.

Ghani’s previous attempt towards talks with the Taleban, in late July 2015, had broken down after the leak of their founder-leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s death, which the Taleban leadership had kept secret for several years. As a result of the leak, the Taleban had pulled out of the talks (more detail in this AAN analysis).

Road to peace through Pakistan?

Nabil, apparently angered by the Taleban attack on Kandahar airfield early on 10 December 2015 that resulted in a many civilian casualties, wrote on his Facebook page that “at the very same moment that [Pakistan’s Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif repeated how Afghanistan’s enemies are also Pakistan’s enemies, our innocent compatriots were killed at Kandahar airport, in Khaneshin [a southern Helmand district that was temporarily taken over by the Taleban], Takhar and Badakhshan.” (The original post in Dari can be found here; a partial English translation is quoted here). He likened the “1000 litres of blood” of “innocent compatriots” spilled in the recent fighting to the colour of the red carpet that had been laid out for the Afghan delegation in Pakistan and slammed approaching Islamabad for support for talks with the Taleban as “kneeling down” in front of the neighbouring country. He ended his diatribe with the remark: “Gratefully, I wasn’t in this.”

The next day his letter of resignation was not only on the president’s desk, but also on those of various Afghan media organisations, where it was widely quoted. A copy was also, again, posted on his Facebook page (see here; a partial translation can be found here). In the letter, Nabil refers to the history of “open intervention by hostile states, particularly Pakistan, in Afghanistan’s internal affairs that have led to an upsurge in security threats.” He further thanked President Ghani for the trust he had placed in him. Citing the reasons for his resignation, he said there had been “a lack of agreement on some policy matters” in recent months and that the president had imposed unacceptable conditions on the way he did his job, which put him under impossible pressure and forced his resignation.

Nabil’s track record

Nabil, a Pashtun from Wardak (see AAN bio here), was originally appointed by President Karzai in July 2010. As the first non-Panjshiri to head the agency, he was initially seen as a transition candidate but his professionalism and reform-mindedness won him some acclaim under both governments (read our previous analysis here). After his reappointment in the NUG, he had, because of this background, been widely considered a Ghani ally. However, he was, in fact, the only member of the cabinet nominated as a consensus candidate of both Ghani and CEO Abdullah.

Nabil, on the other hand, had come under massive criticism from the public and in parliament when his agency seemed unable to handle the growing security challenges, in particular during the Taleban’s latest wave of attacks. The final report of the Fact Finding Delegation – tasked by the president to assess the reasons behind the temporary fall of Kunduz into Taleban hands in late September 2015 – identified intelligence failures as a major cause (more background here). Ironically, the commission was led by Nabil’s predecessor Amrullah Saleh, who had been sacked together with the current head of the National Security Council (NSC) Hanif Atmar (then interior minister), by President Karzai after Taleban were able to fire a few rockets near the assembly place of the 2010 Peace Jirga (see here and here). (1)

The fall of Kunduz was followed by several other events: the successful penetration of Kandahar airport on 9 December 2015 by Taleban commandos disguised in Afghan army uniforms; the fall of another district centre in Helmand, Khaneshin, on the same day, and the immediate threat to other district centres, including Sangin and Marja and to some extent Washer and Gereshk. (In Marja, Taleban are currently reported to be only half a kilometre from the district governor’s compound, while government troops are holed up in a compound outside the town. In Sangin, Taleban have laid siege to the district administration, while some areas of Washer and Gereshk are under immediate threat.)

Nabil’s NDS was also held responsible for recent misinformation claiming that the new Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur had been killed in a shootout in a meeting in Pakistan – which Ghani then personally chose to refute.

Inner-elite conflicts

Nabil’s double barrage was a direct affront to the president. If he had not resigned, Ghani probably would have had little other option than to fire him. As the head of state, constitutionally empowered to set the country’s foreign policy, he would have found it difficult to maintain a key official who publicly was contradicting him on a key strategy towards one of his main policy goals: ending the war in order to allow the growth of Afghanistan’s economy and the reduction of the country’s dependence on external resources. The palace statement, however, said the president had not considered “changes in the leadership of the security institution at this time”.

But although few will argue with the president’s wish and the country’s need for peace, doubt is widespread about whether the ‘road through Pakistan’ is the one that will lead to peace in Afghanistan, given the continued involvement of at least parts of Pakistan’s security establishment with the Afghan Taleban insurgents. Ghani, during this Islamabad visit, did not come up with many new ideas for the peace process. In his speech, he instead reiterated an appeal to “all movements that resort to arms [to] convert themselves into political parties and to legitimately participate in the political process” and to “reduce and renounce violence”. (The use of the verb “to reduce” appears to be new, and seems to point to the possibility of a gradual process.) New was Ghani’s suggestion of “a mechanism of verification” on how “the networks of terror coordinate” in the region through “the Istanbul Process in association with regional mechanisms of security cooperation” (full speech transcript here) – but this would require, among other factors, that the Pakistani government was keen on disclosing its intelligence service’s links with the Taleban.

Why now?

Nabil’s criticism did not entirely come out of the blue. In his resignation letter, he claimed that “over recent months” the working environment had become difficult for him, as he disagreed with a number of policies which undermined the environment of trust and that the pressure on him had mounted.

The NDS chief had earlier this year objected to a memorandum of understanding on intelligence sharing between his NDS and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The MoU had been agreed during a meeting in Kabul between Ghani and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz in May 2015. Nabil had, reportedly, refused to sign the MoU, after which a deputy had to step in. The signing of the MoU caused massive opposition, including from allies of former president Karzai (his former spokesman called it “sleeping with the enemy” in a contribution for al-Jazeera), but also within the Abdullah part of the NUG. The MoU had to be retracted, officially for “revision.” The reports about the Afghan government’s disunity over the MoU have now come up in Pakistani media again.

Rumours that Nabil’s resignation had been orchestrated at the behest of Pakistan (sources claimed to have seen a letter indicating a Pakistani request that the NDS be “cleaned”) were rejected by Kabul officials. Pakistan had however reportedly objected to the NDS running “operations into Pakistan, targeting Taliban leaders and cultivating contacts among militants opposed to the government in Islamabad,” as an American newspaper put it.

The more surprising is Nabil’s choice of timing for his public criticism and subsequent resignation. He might have seen the writing on the wall and chosen to pre-empt any actions from the government – but, as he admitted in his resignation letter, policy disagreements and, as a result, pressure on him to resign had been building over a longer period. He almost appeared to want to inflict maximum damage on Ghani – and on a policy strongly backed by the US.

Nabil’s resignation further points to systemic problems in the Afghan political set-up. First, it reflects how difficult it is for the president to navigate between the need to end the war with the Taleban and the deep-seated mistrust among Afghanistan’s elites, and population, towards Pakistan – regardless of whether the ‘road through Pakistan’ approach is promising or not. Second, it shows that Ghani has not managed to convince even key players within his government about his approach towards Pakistan and the peace process with the Taleban. This is at least partly due to a pervading lack of transparency on key policy decisions (already flagged in this March 2015 AAN analysis) and the tendency to continue Karzai’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ style, although largely with new personnel.

Although Karzai, Ghani’s predecessor, had also unsuccessfully tried to travel down this road (AAN analysis here and here), he and his current political allies argue that Ghani’s course risks bringing Afghanistan’s foreign policy “under the thumb” of Pakistan. However, it cannot be denied that in the quest to end the Afghan war, despite all the risks and misgivings, it is not a matter of “whether” to involve Pakistan, but rather of “how much” and “how.”

Third, beyond the Pakistan-related controversy, Nabil’s resignation shows how fragmented Afghanistan’s ruling elites are and how difficult for them it is to unite behind a single political approach. This makes institutions, even the NDS, vulnerable to ethno-political manipulation, another point raised by Nabil in his resignation letter (the original letter is here). (2)

Finally, Nabil’s resignation adds to the shakiness of the leadership of the Afghan security apparatus while, at least indirectly, strengthening the role of the one security institution that still has an unchallenged boss, the National Security Council (NSC) under Hanif Atmar (as opposed to the NDS and the two other security ministries). The head of the NDS must be approved by parliament, as he is a member of cabinet, but this is not the case with the head of the NSC.

A haemorrhaging government?

The position of permanent defence minister approved by parliament is vacant; (3) the interior minister (according to some) may be on his way out; (4) and an attorney general has been neither appointed nor approved. Apart from all this, the head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) may also have resigned. The IDLG, as the policy-making institution for the sub-national levels and with its influence on appointments in provinces and districts as well as on related legislation, is extremely powerful in centralised Afghanistan.

Pajhwok news agency quoted a palace source on 13 December 2015 who claimed that IDLG head Ghulam Jilani Popal had resigned and had left for the United States “after developing differences with the unity government.” The report was swiftly rejected by the president’s office. An IDLG spokesperson confirmed that Popal had indeed left for the US, but said he was on an official holiday that had been approved by the president. (A formal letter describing his approved leave has since been circulated on social media.) It is thus unclear whether Nabil’s resignation may have been the beginning of the haemorrhaging of the national unity government – which the government denies – or whether certain circles in and around the government are trying to make the situation look worse than it is.

Meanwhile, Ghani – in coordination with CEO Abdullah – appointed the NDS’ deputy chief for operations, Massud Andarabi, a northern Tajik, as acting head. Andarabi has the rank of major general and comes from the district of Andarab in Baghlan. It will be interesting to see whether the interim solution might, again, turn into a permanent one. The Abdullah camp, that has long complained that all security agencies are currently led by Pashtuns (even though Interior Minister Ulumi is an Abdullah nominee), may well be in favour of keeping him. Whether that happens or not, the national unity government so far fails to speak one language when it comes to key policies like peace talks and relations with Pakistan. This will make a breakthrough – with Pakistan’s help, through the revived Qatar office (where a new chief mediator has been appointed in November) or UN or third-party mediation – even more difficult to achieve.


(1) Both subsequently claimed they had resigned; see for example here.

(2) The quote, in its English translation reads, “I also struggled to keep the NDS away from politics and ethnic orientation . . ..”

(3) After the first two candidates for the position of defence minister had withdrawn, parliament rejected the next two choices of the national unity government. The last rejected candidate, Massum Stanakzai, has since continued as acting interim minister, even though he has long overstayed the legal period allowed.

(4) The interior minister, Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, survived a vote of no confidence by parliament in early November after the Taleban victory in Kunduz. But, as a former communist general, he continues to be disliked even among those who nominated him for the position, the Abdullah camp. (Ulumi has distanced himself from his political past and joined Abdullah’s coalition-building efforts early on, in 2007, while he was an outspoken member of parliament between 2005 and 2010.)


NDS Political landscape Rahmatullah Nabil