Political Landscape

Parliament sacks key ministers: Two birds with one stone?


The Afghan Lower House of the parliament, in an unprecedented move, voted out the two key ministers of Defence and Interior, in a single session. While it is early to make predictions on who will succeed them and whether they will be kept on as acting ministers for a while, it is worth having a look at the events and possible reasons that led to this rather unexpected and dramatic development. An analysis by AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Obaid Ali, who observed the session.

With a sudden coup de théâtre, the Wolesi Jirga (WJ), has voted the sacking of Abdul Rahim Wardak and Bismillah Khan Muhammadi(1), respectively the Minister of Defence (MoD) and the Minister of Interior (MoI), in a heated session last Saturday 4 August. The ministers had been summoned to the session to answer the MPs’ complaints over what they considered an unacceptable passivity with regard to the continued Pakistani cross-border shelling in Kunar province.(2)  After an initial stalemate during which it was unclear whether the ministers’ answers had satisfied the session, the MPs proceeded to vote. The outcome, with a quorum of 228, was unambiguous: Bismillah Khan received 90 votes of confidence, and 126 votes against (seven voted blank, while five invalidated their sheet); Wardak received only 72 votes in support, against 146 votes of no-confidence (four blank, five invalid).

The vote seemed to have buoyed many MPs, who consider this a historical day in which they finally acted in unison. This is reflected by the words that Ramazan Bashardost, one of the staunchest supporters of the role of a strong parliament, addressed to the speaker of the chamber: ‘You have been sitting idly for years, today you made you salary halal (worth, deserved) for the first time.’

This is not the first time the Wolesi Jirga has dismissed a minister, but last time the decision was – controversially – overturned. In May 2007, then Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta was given a vote of no-confidence in a second round of voting (after the first round of voting did not meet the quorum requirement by one vote). President Karzai contested the parliament’s decision, kept Spanta as acting minister and finally found the Supreme Court willing to rule that the vote had not been conform the provisions of law. Spanta served undisturbed until January 2010.

Both sacked ministers are considered heavyweights in the Afghan Cabinet, due to their many years of service in the Afghan security institutions. Rahim Wardak is among the longest serving ministers, holding his position since late 2004. while Bismillah Khan, although relatively new at the Ministry of Interior, previously served as as Chief of Staff of the Army – a position where he was rumoured to be much more influential than Wardak himself (as a former commander in a small mujahedin party who had spent much of his time abroad, Wardak had relatively few troops of ‘his’ in his ministry, that for most of the post-2001 period was dominated by Shura-ye Nazar).

Both ministers have also been accused in the past of exploiting their position for personal and political gains: Rahim Wardak is for instance said to have directed hugely lucrative NATO contracts to the private security company run by his son Hamid Wardak, while Bismillah Khan is accused of a consistent appointments policy based on ‘personal and factional interests’. But none of this became a major reason for their questioning, and eventual sacking; both fell, at least so it seems, over the missile crisis in Kunar.(3)

For the second year in a row, the border areas of the eastern province are witnessing a dramatic barrage of artillery fire coming from across the Pakistani border. The Pakistani military has often rebutted Afghan complaints with the accusation that Kunar hosts anti-Pakistani militants from the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, that have moved across the border as a result of Pakistani military operations and launch incursions into Pakistan from there. What had irked the Afghan legislators was that the Afghan government, and in particular the security forces had taken no decisive action to defend Afghan territory and its inhabitants.

The Afghan Senate had been the first to take a firm public stance to the recent shellings. When its members questioned the MoI and the MoD (and the NDS) about their failure to stop the bombardment of parts of Kunar on 29 July, they rejected the explanation that the ministries were obliged to wait for instructions from the Afghan government and the parliament before they could react. The speaker for the Senate Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, who hails from the Eastern region, among others, strongly urged the security forces to defend the integrity of the Afghan territory.(4)

The Wolesi Jirga followed suit as soon as it returned from its summer recess. Already on 28 July, the MPs decided to question the relevant state officials. But this did not satisfy the MPs and some of them (Gul Pacha Majidi, from Paktia, being the most active) started collecting signatures so they could ask for the ministers’ impeachment. 52 signatures, that is, the 20 percent of the Wolesi Jirga required by law, were gathered, and after a tense debate between the speaker of the parliament Rauf Ibrahimi (who even raised objections as to the authenticity of the signatures) and those advocating a general sacking of the heads of state organs that had failed to deliver, it was decided to question representatives of the NDS and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) on 1 August, and to vote on the possible sacking of the ministers MoI and MoD on 4 August. So, last Wednesday the WJ heard the elucidations of NDS and MoFA, and Saturday it was the turn of Wardak and Bismillah Khan to go and face the MPs.

After listening to and debating the answers of the ministers, the MPs voted on whether they accepted their explanations or not by raising red and green cards. The vote ended in a draw: 86 green cards and 86 red cards, which put the decision in the hand of the Speaker. After about one and a half hour of deliberation with his colleagues, Ibrahimi raised his own red card. This led the house to proceed to a vote of confidence for the ministers, which ended with their sacking.

It is difficult to assess what exactly happened among the MPs during those excited few hours. For most of the session the speaker, Ibrahimi, had showed little inclination to proceed with the vote against the ministers, and it is unclear why at the crucial moment he threw his weight in favour of the impeachment. There are rumours that he changed his attitude after having received a note, but these of course are difficult to verify. During the discussions it was clear that there was a faction willing to defend Bismillah Khan. Yunus Qanuni and his allies had, for example, succeeded in presenting the decision on whether the no-confidence vote should go ahead or not as a ‘package’: either accepting the explanations of both ministers of rejecting them both. In this way, the MPs wanting to get rid of Bismillah would not be able to do so without also risking the impeachment of Wardak, who is considered a close ally of Karzai. On the other hand, during the break before the vote, some MPs, especially those from Kunar and Kandahar, started ‘patrolling’ the halls of the National Assembly building, ostensibly to make sure that no lobbying or bribing in favour of the ministers could take place. Three days before the vote, the WJ had even sent a request to the NDS to prevent the possibility of such intercourses between the ministers and the MPs. In the end, both ministers went down and the session degenerated in violence.(5)

It is unclear how this latest development sits with the Palace and what role it has sought to play in influencing it. The announcement from the presidential office merely acknowledged the decision as a fait accompli, and does not provide many clues – other than that the Palace is not in the mood to fight the outcome of the vote. After a meeting of the National Security Council on Sunday, the presidential office confirmed the two ministers as acting in their position ‘until suitable candidates are found and introduced to the parliament.’ (read also a Pajhwok report here)

Given the government’s past record of maintaining ministers who have failed to gain approval by the parliament (read the last of AAN’s numerous blogs on the issue here), there is a possibility that the ministers will be kept in their ‘acting’ capacity for a long time. At some point half of the cabinet happily carried out its functions without having been confirmed by the parliament, for almost two years.(6) This would however probably not go down very well with the Americans and other donors, given the centrality of the security ministries for the transition and exit strategies.

What is most striking about Saturday’s proceedings, is that some of the MPs who are generally considered Karzai loyalists ended up being among the foremost firebrands advocating the removal of the two ministers. As an MP told AAN: ‘The President himself agreed with us! Saturday, all his supporters inside the parliament were keen on ejecting the ministers through a vote of opposition. But the day after, maybe some of his advisors, members of political parties or interest groups, or – who knows? even Pakistan – they put pressure on him and made him change his mind.’

Indeed, Karzai’s next moves will be watched very closely by many sides, in particular in the context of his recent announcements of a long list of new ‘reform’ and anti-corruption measures. With the coming presidential campaigns looming, all politicians are well aware of the centrality of corruption – and the population’s deep dissatisfaction with it. Any open defiance of the parliament’s decision would negate any positive effect that the Karzai government may have hoped to gain by its, incredibly ambitious, recent ‘anti-corruption decree’ (officially known as Decree 45).

Karzai will have to operate carefully. There are already grumblings about the provisional solution of keeping the two ‘impeached’ officials as acting ministers, even though this may be mainly motivated by the need to avoid troubles in the security organs at a critical stage of transition and counterinsurgency. As Waghma Sapai, an MP from Kunar, commented: ‘In every ministry there are two or three deputies, how is it possible that the President could not find anyone suitable to act in the place of the impeached ministers? The people of Kunar expect the President to support the decision of the Wolesi Jirga, they will not accept any illegal decision regarding an issue that affects them directly.’

At today’s session of the WJ in fact the MPs announced vocally their opposition to the ministers retaining their position even temporarily. The speaker, Ibrahimi, called the decision of the Security Council illegal, and promised to send a letter to the presidential office urging it to introduce new candidates for the two ministries as soon as possible.

(1) Abdul Rahim Wardak, Pashtun from Wardak (b. 1940), an army officer from the king’s time, he joined moderate mujahedin party Mahaz-e Melli-ye Islami after the Soviet intervention. He was subsequently Army Chief of Staff and Deputy Defence Minister in the mujahedin government (1992-1996) before going into exile during the Taleban regime. He was appointed as Minister of Defence in December 2004. Bismillah Khan Muhammadi, Tajik from Panjshir (b. 1961), among the top commanders under Ahmad Shah Massud in the Shura-e Nazar’s structure, was briefly Deputy Minister of Defence in 2002 before becoming the Chief of Army Staff. Close to Massud’s successor at the top of Shura-ye Nazar, Fahim, he was made Minister of Interior in mid-2010.

(2) During the session of 1 August, the WJ also questioned the Minister of Foreign Affairs Zalmay Rasul and the Head of National Directorate of Security (NDS) Rahmatullah Nabil. Both apparently managed to convince the parliament of their lesser share of responsibility in the issue.

(3) There were more faults imputed to the two ministers during the discussion that accompanied their questioning: such as the general unsatisfactory security situation in the country, the assassinations of high ranking government officials, the failure to fight narco-traffic and corrupt practices in making appointments and managing the ministries and related institutions (the case of Daud Khan military hospital for the MoD, read about it here). These, however, were side dishes compared to the emphasis put on the situation on Kunar’s border.

(4) A common complaint, raised by several senators and by Chief of Staff Sher Muhammad Karimi (representing the MoD in front of the Senate), has been the inability and unwillingness of the NATO forces present in the country to defend the borders of Afghanistan against the Pakistani intrusion, despite the apparent commitment to do so in the Strategic Agreement that was signed earlier this year (read here)

(5) Herati legislator Nazir Ahmad Hanafi kicked the box containing the votes, ostensibly to protest against the dismissal of Bismillah Khan, which led to a physical attack by Lalai Hamidzai from Kandahar. Several MPs joined the brawl.

(6) A law ruling that acting ministers could not hold their position for than a month time was passed by the Wolesi Jirga during its first tenure. However, it was rejected by the President and did not get a second draft.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape