By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai accepted on Sunday a vote by the country's parliament to dismiss his two top security ministers, but ordered both to remain in their jobs pending replacement, a move aimed at safeguarding fragile stability.
The fractious parliament voted on Saturday to remove Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi after recent insurgent assassinations of senior officials, as well as cross-border fire incidents blamed on Pakistan, an inflammatory issue for many Afghans.
While the ministers remain in place for now, the uncertainty could complicate NATO plans to hand security responsibilities to Afghan forces before the end of 2014, as both positions are crucial to the 11-year war against insurgents as Western countries draw down their military presence.
Karzai, who chaired a Sunday meeting of Afghanistan's National Security Council, issued a statement thanking the pair for "their hard work and dedication", and saying replacements would be brought in according to the law.
Karzai can keep both ministers in their jobs for months if he chooses, and as he previously has done after parliamentary votes to reject his choices.
Those moves may have alienated lawmakers whose cooperation he needs if he is to crack down on widespread corruption within his unpopular government in order to help guarantee up to $16 billion worth of aid promised by his Western backers.
Karzai's powerful finance minister, Hazarat Omar Zakhilwal, is also vulnerable as a result of accusations aired on Afghan television that he stashed away more than $1 million in overseas banks. An investigation was launched on Saturday by the country's top anti-corruption chief.
The dismissal of the veteran Wardak, defense minister for close to eight years, did not cause as much uproar within Karzai's inner circle as that of Mohammadi, an ethnic Tajik and former anti-Soviet mujahideen commander who oversees the police force.
Many of the government's Western supporters believe Mohammadi, who was army chief of staff from 2002 to 2010, has been an effective reformer of the notoriously corrupt police, but after only two years in the job has not had enough time.
Many lawmakers said the pair's dismissal may have been due to genuine failings, or part of maneuvering against Karzai and his political backers ahead of presidential elections in 2014 in which Karzai is constitutionally forbidden from standing.
"It was a political game. I think rocket attacks by Pakistan or other reasons were not good enough to dismiss the interior minister," said Rahman Rahmani, a member of parliament from the northern province of Parwan.
Several MPs and analysts said Mohammadi's removal could widen ethnic divisions between majority Pashtuns and rivals including the Tajiks who formed part of the former Northern Alliance which ousted the Taliban with U.S. military backing in 2001.
Dawood Kalakani, an MP from Kabul, welcomed parliament's decision and said both ministers had been "too inefficient for the job", pointing to worsening internal security and unrelenting border problems with Pakistan.
Wardak, a four-star army general and ethnic Pashtun from eastern Wardak province, is credited by Western diplomats with helping forge the fledgling Afghan National Army into an increasingly effective force against insurgents.
Afghanistan has rushed additional troops and long-range artillery to the mountainous border with Pakistan as tensions continue to rise over cross-border shelling, which Afghan officials blame on Pakistan's military.
Afghanistan has for months accused Pakistan's army of firing hundreds of rockets into the two eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, targeting insurgent havens, but also forcing Afghan villagers to flee their homes.
Pakistan's interior minister on Sunday said elements of the Afghan government were likely to be supporting a senior Pakistani Taliban leader who is fighting to topple the Islamabad government.
(Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)