KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's president responded Sunday to parliament's dismissal of his defense and interior ministers by retaining them as caretakers, keeping his security team intact for now but infuriating lawmakers who suspect he may delay replacing them indefinitely.
The possible removal of both the heads of the military and the police complicates the U.S. effort to gradually turn over more security responsibility to Afghan forces before most international troops leave Afghanistan or move into support roles by the end of 2014.
Legislators voted to disqualify Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi on Saturday after questioning the two on what they said was a weak government response to cross-border attacks that Afghans blame on the Pakistani military, as well as allegations of corruption in their ministries.
President Hamid Karzai met with the National Security Council the next day, and his office issued a statement saying that the council "respects parliament's constitutional decision" in passing a no-confidence vote, but also that the president instructed the ministers "to continue in office until replacements are introduced within the provisions of law."
That language drew immediate condemnation from lawmakers, who said the president is overriding the parliament's authority by keeping on the ministers even temporarily.
"This decision of President Karzai is completely against the law. He doesn't have the authority to keep a minister that has gotten a no-confidence vote of the parliament. He should have immediately have introduced new nominees," said Gul Pacha Mujedi, a lawmaker from the eastern province of Paktia.
Karzai could still quickly name replacements for Wardak and Mohammadi, but in past no-confidence votes, he has simply kept other ministers in their jobs in an acting capacity and then dragged out the replacement process, effectively nullifying the parliamentary action.
Lawmakers suspect he is using the same technique to avoid changes to his Cabinet at a time when his government struggles to project an image of a slowly improving military and police force that will be capable of keeping the Taliban insurgents from regaining ground once most international troops leave.
Wardak is one of the Afghan officials most trusted by Washington. He studied in the U.S. and has been defense minister since late 2004. He has overseen massive growth of the army – now 185,125-strong.
As interior minister, Mohammadi has been tasked with professionalizing the various Afghan police units. He is an ethnic Tajik who fought in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s. He served as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army from 2002 to 2010.
Shinkay Zahin Karokhil, a lawmaker from Kabul, said the president's statement raised worries. If Karzai truly respected the no-confidence vote, she said, "he could have appointed a deputy minister as caretaker."
"If the president wants to keep these two, I think it will not help Afghanistan," she warned, adding that lawmakers would likely discuss Karzai's response in meetings Monday.
The legislative branch of government has increasingly become frustrated with Karzai's administration. Parliament occasionally flexes its muscle to thwart Karzai's policies or appointments, but the constitution still places most power in the president's hands.