Washington: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates avoided criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the sacking of two top Afghan security officials who had worked closely with the United States, but urged the US-backed leader to name replacements of "equal calibre”.
Gates stepped gingerly in answering questions about the significance of the abrupt resignations on Sunday of the two men whom US officials had often singled out by name as examples of competent leadership in a government riven by corruption and patronage.
"It`s obviously an internal matter for the Afghans," Gates said.
The interior minister and intelligence chief were key contacts for US commanders in the expanding Afghanistan war, and for the Obama administration as it tried to both work with Karzai and work around him.
"We have a number of capable ministers we are working with, and I would just hope President Karzai will appoint in the place of those who have left people of equal calibre," Gates said.
Karzai said the resignations were a consequence of a failed Taliban attack on a peace conference, called a jirga, that Karzai held last week. The session laid groundwork for eventual settlement talks with the Taliban, should the insurgency ever be willing to lay down arms.
"There were some bombings associated with the peace jirga and maybe there was a need for accountability in that respect," Gates said.
Security officials have rarely faced punishment or resigned over previous major attacks, but Gates was being careful to suggest that Karzai, not the United States, can call the shots in matters of the Afghan government.
Gates said the firings don`t suggest division within the Karzai administration over its efforts to reconcile with the Taliban — including the possible release of hundreds of detained militant suspects.
The firings took the United States by surprise. They came just weeks after President Barack Obama hosted Karzai for a Washington visit meant to showcase the emerging abilities of the heavily US-supported Afghan central government. Both spy chief Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar accompanied Karzai on that trip.
Saleh was a senior figure in the Northern Alliance that helped the US oust the Taliban regime in 2001. As a young man, Atmar served in Afghanistan`s Communist-era intelligence agency and fought mujahedeen opposed to the Soviet occupation.
Atmar in particular was considered a Washington favourite. Karzai`s decision to keep him in his job following last year`s fraud-tinged national elections was meant to burnish Karzai`s damaged credibility and show faith with his government`s principal patron.
Gates spoke to reporters travelling with him to London, where the stepped-up military campaign in southern Afghanistan will be a major topic of talks with the new British government.
Gates was meeting Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday and Defence chief Liam Fox on Tuesday.