Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in a declared attempt to fight corruption, has dismissed five provincial governors from their posts. Among those dismissed is Gulab Mangal of Helmand Province, a particular favorite of international forces. Mangal’s dismissal does not come as a surprise and makes a certain degree of sense in domestic political terms.
Karzai has tried numerous times to push Mangal out of office but always pulled back at the objections of the American and British forces stationed in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. That he has finally ousted Mangal indicates that Karzai is looking beyond the opinions of Western allies and 2014, when NATO is set to withdraw, with an eye for his own job security.
In place of Mangal, under whose watch Helmand became the deadliest posting for NATO forces, Karzai is installing General Naeem Baloch, a little known member of the Afghan intelligence service and a man more closely allied with Karzai’s inner circle.
While viewed favorably by international forces, Mangal’s term as governor was controversial due to the rising tide of violence in Helmand. One of his predecessors, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, was removed from office in 2005 amid solid rumors of links to drug trafficking and under international pressure.
In 2009, Akhundzada virtually admitted that he had been engaged in smuggling activities but told The New York Times, “at least I spent the money on government and soldiers! Now the money goes to the Taliban and kills British and Americans and Afghan soldiers.”
Violence in the south markedly rose after Akhundzada left the governorship, from one coalition death in 2005 to 62 in 2007, rising to a peak of 290 in 2010. Observers placed a degree of blame on Akhundzada, saying that he encouraged the province’s destabilization in an attempt to sabotage his successor.
Mangal, for his part, could do little to stymie the rising violence. His courting of international forces did not win him many friends and met with little concrete security success. Karzai’s dismissal of Mangal would appear to make sense. He is too close to the international forces busy planning their exit from Afghanistan while Karzai is contemplating Afghanistan’s future post 2014.
The president’s domestic political calculations put him at odds with Western objectives in the country. In an idyllic Afghanistan, poppies would not be the main cash crop and elections would decide authority. But the reality of governance in Afghanistan differs significantly from this vision. Which is not to say that the ideal is wrong but that demanding perfection is naive.
In his book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012), Rajiv Chandrasekaran quotes Karzai as asking, in reference to Akhundzada, “Do you want a bad guy on your side or working for the Taliban?”
It seems Karzai has answered the question. His recent shuffling of governors is an attempt to gain greater control. If Afghan history is any lesson, this reflects Karzai’s own naive hopes of maintaining power.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sher Mohammad Akhundzada had been removed from the Helmand governorship in 2008 when, in fact, he left office in 2005.