KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sacked five provincial governors, including a key Western ally in one of the most turbulent battlegrounds of the south, officials said Thursday.
Government insiders said the move was part of efforts to reform and fight corruption, but the dismissal of Mohammad Gulab Mangal in Helmand province could ruffle British and US allies who considered him an important ally against the Taliban.
Mangal was sacked for "political reasons," according to a senior official in Karzai's office.
"He had lots of unnecessary relations, close relations with the foreigners which the president didn't like. He was suspected to be involved in corruption," the official said, on condition of anonymity.
The government replaced Mangal, a former army colonel, with army General Naeem Baloch, an adviser to the country’s spy agency and more closely allied to Karzai’s inner circle amid recent strains between Karzai and his international backers.
“General Naeem Baloch who has great working experience and efficiency in administrative affairs has been appointed as new governor of Helmand,” Ferdous said.
The changes affected 10 provinces including Nimroz and Badghis in the west, Faryab and Baghlan in the north, central Wardak, Helmand in the southwest and the capital, Kabul.
U.S. and coalition officials said rumors had surfaced in recent months about Gov. Mangal's imminent removal, particularly as he grew in stature. The governor's staff first learned about the dismissal through a Facebook posting, his spokesman said.
The changes come in advance of elections which are due in 2014. Mr Mangal has been tipped as a possible contender for the leadership.
Another four governors were reshuffled between the provinces of Faryab and Takhar in the north, and Laghman and Logar, adjacent to Kabul.
Karzai's leadership clean-up amounts to the dismissal of figureheads in almost a third of the country's provinces.
The move has been interpreted as an attempt by the country's president to demonstrate to foreign donors that he is serious about cracking down on corruption and nepotism.
A bigger problem is Karzai’s decision Thursday to fire the pro-U.S. governor of Helmand province, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, who has long been viewed as one of the nation’s best leaders.
He stood alongside a U.S. general in July for a press conference that was piped in to the Pentagon from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. Mangal said he wasn’t concerned about the pullout of U.S. troops. “Taliban will try their best disrupt the security situation,” he said. “But now ANSF — Afghan national security forces — are at the level that they can maintain the security of the Helmand province.”
Karzai’s office didn’t detail why the president ousted Mangal, who holds an appointed, not elected, office. U.S. officials suggested Karzai may have viewed him as a political threat, and that his canning is part of the messy business of trying to build a more democratic government. Its impact on the Taliban in Helmand remains an open question.