The recent resignation of Afghanistan’s national adviser casts a shadow over the country’s national unity government as it deals with pressing military challenges amid political turmoil ahead of scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.
As major political factions and strongmen unite in a broad coalition to challenge President Ashraf Ghani in the elections, the resignation of key confidante Hanif Atmar adds to Kabul’s challenges as it reels from bold Taliban attacks and threats from the Islamic State (IS) militants.
“This resignation clearly shows that former national security adviser Atmar wants to draw a political line between himself and the president as he highlights the policy disconnect that has emerged in the domestic as well as foreign and security arenas,” noted Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat.
Samad served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to France and Canada and knows the Afghan elites well. He sees political implications for one of the country’s top security officials. “This resignation will also speed up the political horse-trading and coalition-building efforts underway in a crowded and disjointed political field,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
“The development will have broad ramifications at a time when politicians are focused on electioneering and security, economic conditions are challenging, and there is even uncertainty about the embryonic reconciliation process [with the Taliban],” he added.
Atmar’s resignation follows a recent Taliban assault on Ghazni. Hundreds of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians were killed amid a botched Taliban attempt on the strategic southeastern Afghan city near Kabul this month. The insurgents also refused to engage in another cease-fire with the Afghan government.
On the political front, Ghani’s opposition united under the banner of the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan. The coalition, officially launched in July, is an alliance of influential political figures such as Ghani’s first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum; Mohammad Mohaqiq, second deputy to the chief executive office; and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful former governor of northern Balkh Province.
In his resignation letter, Atmar hinted at his growing differences with Ghani over such issues.
“I deem it necessary to resign from my position due to the serious disagreements with the policies and methods of the government's leadership,” he wrote in the resignation letter obtained by Radio Free Afghanistan on August 25. “We could not reach an understanding in maintaining and consolidating unity and national consensus, maintaining peace and security, political management and electoral affairs, good governance and consolidating the regional and international relations of the country in recent months.”
Days after Atmar’s resignation, opinions are divided over his departure. Lawmaker Ali Akbar Qasemi is a member of the parliamentary committee on defense and represents Ghazni in the lower house of the Afghan legislature. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that the resignation was linked to the recent fighting in Ghazni.
However, Reuters quoted an Afghan official close to Atmar as saying, "He has resigned because he is preparing to run [in the] presidential election next year.”
Whatever led to his leaving the government, Atmar’s departure is seen as a blow to the Ghani-led national unity government.
“When someone as powerful as Atmar resigns from a government already plagued by dysfunction, you’re really looking at the potential for trouble,” said Michael Kugleman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “The move also raises questions as to whether it’s more a case of him being asked to leave, which suggests the possibility of more rifts within a national unity government that is united only in name.”
In Kabul, Haroun Mir, founder of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, agrees. He sees Atmar’s resignation as a setback for the Afghan leader. “Atmar's departure creates a vacuum that President Ghani cannot fill with anyone else,” he said.
But Ghani is looking forward. “It was a difficult decision for me to accept the resignation of a friend and longtime colleague,” he told the Afghan National Security Council staff while introducing his former Washington envoy, Hamdullah Mohib, as Atmar’s replacement on August 26.
“But for the country's greater interests, I made this difficult decision. I appreciate his service, and his expertise will be utilized in other areas [of government],” Ghani added.
Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam, a Kabul-based political observer, says Atmar’s swift replacement will have a positive impact. “There is no vacuum, and I am not concerned about any resignation or sacking impacting the security situation in Afghanistan,” he said.
Najeeb Nangyal, a Kabul-based writer and political analyst, agrees. He says that greater unanimity among the 16 members of the Afghan Security Council will have a positive upturn. The council includes the defense and interior ministers and the head of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan spy services. Ghani turned down their resignations on August 26.
“In the past, there was no coordination between Ghani and Atmar on some issues, and their differences had a negative impact on the security and defense situation,” Nangyal said.
Kugleman, however, argues that amid mounting Taliban violence, Atmar’s successor faces daunting challenges.
“Atmar’s successor will have to hit the ground running to try to manage a security environment that is looking increasingly difficult to control,” he said.