KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai sacked five governors and made changes to the leadership of almost a third of the country’s 34 provinces on Thursday in a shakeout of corrupt or inept officials aimed at soothing foreign donors.
In sweeping changes also tightening his own political influence, Karzai dumped five provincial chiefs including the high-profile head of volatile Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, who had close ties with Karzai’s international backers.
Some of the changes, made following a decree issued by Karzai two months ago ordering a crackdown on nepotism and corruption, will mean powerful governors are replaced with ones more open to influence from Karzai’s office and officials in Kabul ahead of a presidential election in 2014.
“We hope that the new changes bring good governance and reforms in the provinces and affect the daily lives of Afghans,” said Rafi Ferdous of the government’s Office of Administrative Affairs in announcing the changes.
But the changes will also worry donors, with Mangal in particular having been central to NATO plans to improve security in Helmand, where insurgents last week attacked a major NATO base, destroying $200 million worth of fighter jets and killing two foreign soldiers, including a senior officer.
The government replaced Mangal, a former army colonel, with army General Naeem Baloch, an adviser to the country’s spy agency and more closely allied to Karzai’s inner circle amid recent strains between Karzai and his international backers.
“General Naeem Baloch who has great working experience and efficiency in administrative affairs has been appointed as new governor of Helmand,” Ferdous said.
The changes affected 10 provinces including Nimroz and Badghis in the west, Faryab and Baghlan in the north, central Wardak, Helmand in the southwest and the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban remain a potent threat in most, including Kabul where insurgents have carried out several high-profile attacks including an April assault on diplomatic and government areas launched from a high-rise building under construction.
Ferdous said there was no consideration for a new post for governor Mangal, who some powerbrokers in Kabul had tipped for a ministerial promotion that now looks unlikely amid political manoeuvring and a simmering row between Karzai and NATO over security cooperation.
SALMON AND BEARS
Karzai’s two-month old anti-corruption decree, while less radical than Western donors had hoped, suggested a growing realisation within government that corruption must be addressed and senior figures prosecuted, with $16 billion of aid being made conditional on a crackdown.
While the decree was vague on time frames, Karzai’s office said improvements could be expected by the end of September.
Several cabinet ministers are also under a corruption cloud.
They include the finance minister, Hazarat Omar Zakhilwal, who has been accused of stashing more than $1 million in overseas banks and properties. Zakhilwal has promised to fight the accusations, which were aired on Afghan television.
The head of the Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, Azizullah Lodin, said he did not expect changes in top positions as a result of Karzai’s decree.
“To stop corruption in Afghanistan, that is not possible as it is in the United States and England and other countries,” Lodin told Reuters in an interview ahead of the changes.
“I am a salmon trying to go against the river, but in some places there are bears and they have an open mouth.”
Lodin said his office had handed 131 files to the attorney-general’s office in the last two years, but only a handful had been followed up and no senior figure had yet been jailed for corruption.
“We did our job. These files were about very particular (instances of) corruption, high corruption, grand corruption, even some ministers,” he said.
Mangal had been tipped as a candidate for the vacant Border and Tribal Affairs Ministry in Karzai’s cabinet, or a shift to become governor of Herat, which accounts for 20 percent of national government revenue from trade with Iran.
Giving Mangal a ministry could have triggered a row for Karzai with lawmakers, some of whom had threatened to withhold approval because of concern about Mangal’s overseas property dealings, said Kandahar MP Shekiba Hashimi, a member of parliament’s internal security commission.