KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai moved to replace the country's intelligence chief and the ministers of defense and interior Wednesday, the first step in what senior government officials said was a planned wider Cabinet shake-up aimed at solidifying the president's power before elections and the drawdown of foreign forces.
The president also is trying to shore up his shaken security team as his administration struggles to build an army and police force in the face of a resurgent Taliban as the U.S. and other foreign forces begin to withdraw. Those coalition's training efforts have increasingly become a target for insurgents — NATO said Wednesday that three more of its service members were killed by an Afghan wearing an army uniform in the latest in a string of attacks by Afghans on international trainers.
Karzai's latest reshuffle of top officials — if it goes through — appeared to be an attempt to stack the Cabinet and electoral commission with his allies in a bid to retain power behind the scenes after his final five-year term ends and the international troops withdraw in 2014.
"With the elections coming, with the transition ... it is a time for him to re-strengthen his team," said Martine van Bijlert, an expert at the Afghan Analysts Network. "I think we could be seeing a major reshuffle. ... The question is always: Can he make it stick?"
An Afghan official close to the president's office told The Associated Press the head of the country's election commission, the attorney general and the finance minister were expected to be among the top positions to be part of the shake-up. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Nothing is final until there is an official announcement from Karzai, and the president could still change his nominees or leave the government largely untouched. But van Bijlert noted that while rumors of Cabinet shake-ups are common, Karzai may use the window provided by the parliament's sacking of his defense and interior ministers to make wider changes.
However, any changes must be confirmed by parliament, and it is unclear whether Karzai would be able to muster the necessary support from lawmakers, many of whom feel the president too often ignores parliament's constitutional powers, to push his nominees through. There were already grumblings among lawmakers about some of the names that have emerged.
Two senior Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, told AP that Assadullah Khalid, the minister of tribal and border affairs, would replace Rahtamullah Nabil as the head of the National Directorate of Security — the country's main spy agency. Khalid, a former governor of two provinces, has been criticized for alleged human rights violations and could be a controversial pick.
A statement from Karzai's office Wednesday said Nabil would step down because he had finished his two-year term. It did not name a replacement.
Karzai also plans to name Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, who was ousted from his post as interior minister earlier this month by parliament, as defense minister, and Mushtaba Patang, an ex-police chief in the country's north, as the new interior minister, according to Abdul Qadir Qalatwal, a lawmaker from Zabul province.
He said the president's office had notified parliament of the names.
A spokesman for Karzai, Hamid Elmi, confirmed that the president would send nominees for the defense and interior ministers, as well as for a new intelligence chief, "in the near future," but he would not confirm the names.
The planned swap of the three key security officials raised questions of stability in the administration as the Afghan government struggles to build a 352,000-strong army and police force by the end of the year that can fight the Taliban, a centerpiece of the withdrawal strategy for the U.S. and its allies. Despite some reports of improved Afghan security performance, violence continues to spiral across the country.
NATO spokesman Jamie Graybeal said the coming changes would not slow progress toward building the Afghan security forces, saying the coalition's relationship with the Afghan government "reaches across various levels of the ministries and will guarantee our strategy for transformation will remain on track."
The U.S. has spent $22 billion on the training effort that has been plagued with pitfalls, including an alarming number of U.S. and allied deaths by Afghans who turned their weapons on their international counterparts. There have been at least 34 such attacks so far this year, killing 42 coalition members, mostly Americans.
In the latest insider attack, three Australian soldiers were killed and another two wounded by a man in an Afghan army uniform, Australian officials said Thursday.
NATO said in a statement Wednesday that the attack happened at a base in southern Afghanistan. The Australian Defense Force said it would release more information after the families of the soldiers were notified.
Keeping Mohammadi on the security team is likely to please NATO, since it is already used to working with him, but the potential nomination of Khalid could be more problematic with the international military coalition, the analyst van Bijlert said.
"He is part of the circle of people that Karzai likes to appoint," van Bijlert said. "He's always had friends among the internationals, people that really like to work with him. But he's always had pretty strong critics as well, and that is particularly because he had a record of human rights abuses when he was governor of Ghazni and governor of Kandahar."
And Mohammadi may not survive a parliamentary confirmation vote as defense minister. Lawmakers on Aug. 4 removed him and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in a vote of no confidence, citing past security lapses, corruption allegations and outrage at reports of Pakistani cross-border shelling as reasons.
"Those ministers who were rejected by the parliament will never be confirmed in another vote," vowed Mohammad Nahim Lalai, a lawmaker from Kandahar.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Robert Burns in Washington and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.