KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s parliament voted on Saturday to dismiss the country’s two top security ministers for failing to stop cross-border shelling blamed on Pakistan, in what could be a blow to NATO plans to reinforce stability and handover to Afghan forces.
The fractious parliament voted to remove Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi over a series of recent insurgent assassinations of top officials, as well as the cross border fire incidents infuriating many ordinary Afghans as well as politicians.
It was unclear whether President Hamid Karzai would accept the vote by MPs as his administration tries to bolster stability ahead of 2014 presidential elections and NATO’s pullout the same year.
The president’s office released a statement saying the beleaguered president, whose popularity has been hit by corruption problems and deteriorating security, would decide on Sunday whether to keep the pair in place, possibly in an acting role.
Karzai’s powerful finance minister, Hazarat Omar Zakhilwal, is also under a cloud over accusations aired on Afghan television that he stashed away more than $1 million in overseas banks, with an investigation launched on Saturday by the country’s top anti-corruption chief.
Afghanistan has rushed additional troops and long-range artillery to the mountainous Pakistan border as tensions continue to rise over cross-border shelling which Afghan officials blame on Pakistan’s powerful military.
Afghanistan has for months accused Pakistan’s army of firing hundreds of rockets into the two eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, targeting insurgent havens, but also forcing Afghan villagers to flee their homes.
“The defense ministry has reinforced army corps 201 and 203 and has specially created another division from which two battalions have already been sent there,” Defense Minister Wardak told lawmakers before the vote to remove him.
“We have also sent long-range artillery and ammunition for use by all army corps,” he said, adding that some artillery was being specially refurbished for the eastern border.
While both sides and NATO-led foreign troops have been holding top-level meetings to improve border security, Afghanistan’s foreign ministry summoned Pakistan’s Kabul ambassador last week and warned that continued shelling would damage already fragile bilateral ties.
Pakistan’s military has rejected the accusation and says it only responds to attacks by militants, including Pakistan Taliban operating from what it says are havens in Afghan territory.
The poorly marked border between the two countries is extremely rugged and remote, running through the foothills of the Hindu Kush and easily crossed in both directions by Taliban fighters and other insurgent groups.
Fighting has intensified in Afghanistan over the past few months, with security forces on Thursday killing five insurgents during a pre-dawn raid which prevented a mass attack on central Kabul’s shopping district.
As well, militants have assassinated several top officials at the district and provincial level, including the killing last month of a provincial women’s affairs head, as well as a prominent politician in a suicide attack on a wedding.
Kabul has regularly accused elements in Islamabad’s government and army of backing militants fighting the Western-backed Kabul government, while Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of not doing enough to eliminate militant bases.
Interior Minister Mohammadi showed several pictures of exploded 155mm rocket casings to MPs and told them they should have “no doubt” that they were fired by Pakistani soldiers.
“It’s impossible to say that Taliban are involved because these rockets are only in possession of the Pakistan army,” Mohammadi said.
Earlier this week, Afghanistan’s spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil said the Pakistani military had fired over 2,100 rockets in the last four months into several districts, with most landing in Kunar and some in less populated Nuristan.
Foreign troops are now transitioning security responsibility to the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces as NATO-led forces look to withdraw from the unpopular war by the end 2014.
Additional reporting by Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Jeremy Laurence