KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Parliament voted to dismiss the two most powerful members of the government’s security team on Saturday, a surprise move that could create new turmoil in a difficult transition as the United States-led coalition prepares to leave the country.
Lawmakers explained the move – which would cast out the head of the army and national police force in the middle of a war – as part of an effort to end the crippling corruption and cronyism endemic in the government. They also criticized the two men for failing to protect the country against recent cross-border rocket attacks from Pakistan.
President Hamid Karzai could try to delay the men’s departure, but early indications were that he would accede to Parliament’s wishes.
The shift in power is sure to cause upheaval in both ministries at a critical time, as Afghan soldiers and police are taking over responsibility for security in much of the country. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi shoulder most of the responsibility for helping to build a strong enough army and police force to fight the Taliban without the coalition forces, who are set to withdraw by the end of 2014.
A change in leadership could also complicate relations with the United States, which values the longstanding relationship with Mr. Wardak in particular, who is seen as a stable ally compared with the mercurial Mr. Karzai. In addition, both ministers have long experience in fighting the insurgency.
“Even if this is only a political gesture and current ministers stay, this is a warning about the weakness of the Karzai government, a reflection of the deep divisions in the Afghan legislature and an indication of the kind of far deeper ethnic and sectarian splits that may come as the transition proceeds,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the war at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Transition is already a high-risk effort, and this kind of additional risk is scarcely likely to make things better.”
The American Embassy and the NATO command here appeared to be caught by surprise by the parliamentary vote and did not comment.
In a possible indication of Mr. Karzai’s unwillingness to challenge the dismissals, his press office issued a statement on Saturday saying, “The disqualification of ministers is the Parliament’s right.”
The vote came as many Afghan leaders and civilians are increasingly frustrated with corruption that undermines attempts to rebuild after years of war and amid anger from Parliament about cronyism in both ministries, whose personnel are in every district of the country. It also follows weeks of anger over the recent cross-border rocket barrages from Pakistan, which has a strong interest in maintaining influence in Afghanistan when coalition forces leave.
Analysts say it would have been hard for Afghanistan to respond to the attacks without a diplomatic breakdown with Pakistan, which denies involvement and blames militants for the strikes. Still, the violence symbolizes Afghanistan’s helplessness in a tug-of-war over its fate among powerful outside forces.
For the Obama administration, which has made corruption a central issue in the past, the possible replacement of the two ministers presents a challenge. With the administration now focused on arranging an orderly transition to Afghans, it has been less vocal on corruption issues, perhaps calculating that preserving officials who are seen as effective, even if suspect, might be the higher priority.
Some American analysts said they were not yet alarmed by the news, in part because Mr. Karzai could try to keep the ministers on, as he has done in the past with other appointees who have stayed in their posts for months or years despite political opposition. But this time may be different. Some of his allies in Parliament voted for the ouster, suggesting possible support from his government.
Mr. Wardak, a Pashtun, and Mr. Mohammadi, a Tajik, have been high-profile figures in the Afghan government since the early days of the government’s formation after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. Mr. Wardak has served in his post since 2004, and Mr. Mohammadi has worked in security posts including as chief of staff of the army.
A number of lawmakers said they saw the move as a demonstration of Parliament doing its job. They strongly rejected the notion that it would hamper the security transition.
“Their disqualification will not have any impact on the transition process because the government of Afghanistan has agreed that security responsibilities should be handed over to Afghans and whether Bismullah Khan and Wardak are part of it or not this process will proceed,” said Gul Pacha Majidi, a lawmaker from Paktia Province in the country’s southeastern Pashtun belt.
He agreed with several other lawmakers that an important element in Parliament’s decision was widespread corruption and cronyism as well as longstanding questions about the two ministries’ ability to protect the country. One point of frustration were attacks in Kabul by insurgents and their infiltration of both ministries, lawmakers said.
In February gunmen entered a secure control room in an inner sanctum of the Interior Ministry and shot two American officers who were advisers in the ministry. No gunman has ever been caught. This year several suicide vests were found inside the Defense Ministry, raising concerns that the ministry itself, much less the country, was not secure.
Lawmakers who voted to remove the ministers insisted, however, that on balance a change in leadership would improve the country’s security climate.
“Their disqualification will even have a positive impact on the process because a new minister will bring a lot of changes in the command structure of these ministries, which are currently filled with corrupt division and corp commanders and corrupt police chiefs who are incompetent and have failed to strengthen security,” Mr. Majidi said.
One lawmaker from Kandahar, Mohammed Naim Lalai Ahmadzai, asserted that both ministries had bought wildly overpriced military boots.
Mr. Mohammadi, a native of Panshir Province, who was a prominent member of the former Northern Alliance which fought the Taliban and close to the movement’s iconic fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, was known for filling many of the most powerful provincial police chief jobs as well as lower-level district police jobs with his fellow Panshiris or former anti-communist anti-Taliban fighters who belonged to Jamiat-al-Islami, the political party of Mr. Massoud and Mr. Mohammadi.
Westerners who are monitoring the security transition saw the move in many respects as demonstrating a good impulse to improve two powerful ministries, but they also saw pitfalls.
“It was an effort to clean house, and the only unfortunate part of it is that you may get more rats in the castle,” said Candace Rondeaux, who heads the International Crisis Group’s Kabul office. “We don’t know who is going to replace Rahim Wardak and Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, but we know that there are precious few candidates with a clean profile.”
Habib Zahori and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul and Peter Baker from Washington.