Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak resigned on Tuesday after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament on his handling of security and being relegated to an acting role as President Hamid Karzai searched for a replacement.
Wardak, who had been in charge of the army and one of the country’s two key security ministers, told reporters he respected parliament’s decision, which could complicate NATO plans to hand security responsibilities to Afghan forces before the end of 2014.
“I respected the parliament’s decision to twice appoint me as defense minister, and now I accept the parliament decision to remove me. I resign my position,” Wardak told journalists.
The fractious parliament voted on Saturday to remove Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi after recent insurgent assassinations of senior officials, as well as cross-border shelling blamed on Pakistan.
Wardak’s decision leaves the vital position of defense minister vacant at the peak of the summer fighting months and as U.S. and French troops draw down numbers and hand over to Afghan forces.
It was not immediately clear how soon Karzai would be able to replace the veteran four-star general and ethnic Pashtun from eastern Wardak province, who is credited by Western diplomats with helping forge the fledgling Afghan National Army into an increasingly effective force against insurgents.
The beleaguered president’s popularity has been hit by corruption problems and deteriorating security. His 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.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its fiercest since U.S.-led Afghan troops overthrew the Taliban government in 2001. Insurgents have extended their reach from traditional strongholds in southern and eastern areas to parts of the country once considered relatively safe.
Insurgents on Tuesday detonated a remote-control bomb under a mini-bus on Kabul's outskirts, killing nine civilians, while a truck bomb also exploded outside a NATO base south of the city, wounding 11 people, including several foreign soldiers.
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.
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.