KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan cabinet minister and one-time warlord called on Monday on former anti-Soviet guerrillas to regroup and rearm to prevent a slide into civil war once most foreign forces leave the country by the end of 2014.
Ismail Khan, the energy and water minister and an influential former mujahideen commander, reiterated during a parliamentary session a call to arms that incensed Afghan officials and led some lawmakers to try to impeach him on Monday.
But Khan emerged unscathed with the support of 140 of 172 members present, dealing a blow to efforts by President Hamid Karzai to assuage public fears about the effectiveness of Afghanistan’s security forces after their foreign backers leave.
Brought into Karzai’s government as a symbol of national unity, Khan was chided last month for urging people in his power base of the western Herat province to “step forward, take arms and defend the country” in areas where police and troops were unable to operate.
Khan insisted he was committed to Afghanistan’s stable future, having played a role in the creation of the current political structure.
“I‘m not making my speech here as a minister but as a person who has fought for more than 21 years for the independence of Afghanistan,” he said during a 90-minute rebuttal, televised live on state television.
“I call from this tribune to all mujahideen not only in Herat, but all mujahideen in Afghanistan, the saviour soldiers of this country - don’t let it go back to insecurity.”
The government is concerned “irresponsible armed groups” could heed Khan’s request and undermine efforts to win public confidence in the 350,000 foreign-trained Afghan security forces.
The regrouping of militias could also further destabilise the country by renewing tribal and ethnic conflicts and turf wars over wealth, resources and power.
Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, a lawmaker for Kandahar province, accused Khan during the debate of distributing weapons and trying to consolidate his political power in Herat.
“Do you think that this is the time to have a parallel security structure, against our strong national security forces?” he asked him. “You are the cabinet minister... Why don’t you call on our mujahideen to support Afghan security forces?”
Violence is intensifying across Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign troops and an election in April of 2014, which will bring an end to Karzai’s final term in office and has led to concerns about poll fraud and power struggles.
Peace talks facilitated by U.S. diplomats involving the Afghan government and Taliban representatives broke down in March and efforts to revive them appear to be stumbling.
In the past two weeks, suicide attacks claimed by the Taliban have targeted symbols of the Western presence in Afghanistan, including a NATO base in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave and two U.S. military installations, killing more than a dozen Afghan police and soldiers and wounding scores of civilians.
Five people were killed in a suicide attack at a U.S. airfield in Jalalabad on Sunday. Two bombers and seven insurgents armed with rifles and rockets were also killed.
Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie