By Rob Taylor and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Lawmakers voted to sack Afghanistan's interior minister on Monday, accusing him of failing to quell attacks from militants as international troops accelerate their exit from the country.
The vote to dismiss Ghulam Mujtaba Patang came as America's top general Martin Dempsey arrived in Kabul to try and restart talks on a pact to keep some U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after the official deadline for withdrawal at the end of 2014.
Parliament's decision will add to worries among the country's Western backers about the ability of Afghan forces to take over the policing of the fractured state.
Politicians said Patang, head of a 157,000-strong police force for less than a year, had not managed to stop regular insurgent attacks on the main highway south from the capital to Kandahar city, and other assaults.
"I ask the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to announce another person for this position," said parliamentary speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi after the ballot. Just sixty lawmakers backed Patang while 136 opposed him.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he had not yet decided whether to accept the vote, as his administration tries to make inroads against the Taliban militants ahead of presidential elections in April and the pullout of NATO-led troops.
Patang, Karzai said, would stay as acting minister while he sought legal advice from Afghanistan's Supreme Court, meaning a decision could drag on for months, possibly even until the April 5 ballot.
"Parliament has the right to make these impeachment decisions," Karzai said. "But at the same time, I want to be clear the vote was based on accurate results and according to the law."
"LOTS OF PROBLEMS"
Both Afghan security forces and NATO commanders have been keen to talk up gains in the 12-year battle against the Taliban, pushed from power by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance following the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.
But the commander of Afghan provinces close to Pakistan said this month that insurgent numbers had risen in the east.
Patang himself told Parliament 2,748 police officers, or about two percent of his force, had been killed by insurgent gunmen since March 21 - a figure that far outstripped past official estimates. Patang's office later clarified the figure to say it included officers wounded in fighting.
Patang argued it was the job of the more heavily-armed military to protect remote areas and highways, including the vital economic lifeline running south to Kandahar.
"I'm on the threshold of NATO's withdrawal," he said. "There will be lots of problems. There will be lots of challenges."
Patang, a majority Pashtun and professional police officer, had risen swiftly in Karzai's government, leading efforts to train police and volunteer militias, and forging close ties with Western donors as a liaison with NATO reconstruction teams.
"There is no doubt that day by day the security situation is becoming worse," said political analyst Bashir Bezhan.
"But it was not logical to disqualify a minister who has disclosed corruption among some MPs. Some parliamentarians were looking for such a chance to disqualify him."
Lawmakers said Patang, a former provincial police chief, had also failed to fight police corruption and ignored a summons to parliament. The assembly has increasingly used its ability to impeach as a way of asserting a measure of authority over Karzai's sweeping powers.
DEMPSEY "MORE CONFIDENT"
Karzai suspended talks on a future U.S. military presence in anger over U.S. and Pakistani support of a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, arguing they had let insurgent leaders there behave like a government in waiting.
But Dempsey told reporters Karzai had in the past been positive about the importance of concluding the Bilateral Security Agreement on keeping some U.S. presence after 2014.
Early discussions over the pact have already triggered anti-Western protests in some areas and risked further damage to Karzai's already-flagging popularity.
"If the question is how will Afghanistan continue to secure itself over time, then the answer over time is that it has to develop the capability do so. Our offer is to be part of helping that occur," Dempsey said.
"I'm somewhat more confident than I was before I came over here that we can work through this and have a bilateral security agreement fairly soon," he said.
When pressed, Dempsey said that from a military perspective he hoped the agreement would be concluded by October, to give major U.S. allies time to decide on their own contributions of troops or advisers under a new NATO framework.
Dempsey declined to comment on the parliament's actions.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)