KABUL—Afghan President Hamid Karzai removed the governor of a key southern province, depriving the U.S.-led coalition of a stalwart ally at a tense moment in U.S.-Afghan relations.
Mr. Karzai fired or reassigned 10 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial governors on Thursday. The move came weeks after he replaced the top officials overseeing Afghan security forces, and further strengthened his oversight of state machinery and key ministries.
In the shake-up, Mr. Karzai fired Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal of Helmand province, Afghanistan's main opium growing area, a Taliban stronghold, and the focus of President Barack Obama's troop surge. U.S. officials said that surge ended Thursday, with the last of 33,000 troops that began arriving in late 2009 now outside Afghanistan.
Gov. Mangal's removal was "bad news" for the coalition, said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, former coalition commander in Afghanistan, who serves as senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He "was one of the most—if not the single most—effective governors in Afghanistan," Gen. Barno said.
As the coalition has sought to build up local leaders from provincial governors to village militias, Mr. Karzai has tried to centralize authority in Kabul, often reassigning local officials as he attempted to prevent the emergence of other power centers.
The shake-up Thursday followed a decree by the president to review the performance of regional governors in combating corruption and improving governance, Mr. Karzai's administrative affairs department said, without giving the specific reason for Gov. Mangal's dismissal.
The lack of a stable local leadership in many parts of Afghanistan has undermined governance, deepening the divide that many Afghans feel from the Kabul authorities. Coalition commanders relied on Gov. Mangal to extend the presence of the central government in Helmand.
Mr. Karzai named Mohammad Naim Baloch as Helmand governor. Coalition officials said Gov. Mangal had informed them of his replacement. "We have not met him yet," said a coalition official in the province. Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment on internal Afghan political matters.
Coalition military officials said Gov. Mangal's removal would mean the loss of a powerful and effective local leader.
"We feel that he has done a tremendous amount for the coalition here," said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, spokesman for the Helmand-based Regional Command South-West. "He saved lives through his actions, and he also helped contribute to accomplish our mission."
Gov. Mangal was a "very adept politician" who helped reach out to communities traditionally excluded by the government, said an official with the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, a combined military-civilian unit that oversees reconstruction and governance projects.
Under the governor's leadership, the official added, Helmand saw the creation of local representative bodies and the appointment of district governors.
The U.K., which focuses its Afghan efforts on Helmand province, and the U.S. had been able to stop Mr. Karzai's previous plans to remove Gov. Mangal, in office since 2008.
U.S. and coalition officials said rumors had surfaced in recent months about Gov. Mangal's imminent removal, particularly as he grew in stature. The governor's staff first learned about the dismissal through a Facebook posting, his spokesman said.
The president's reshuffle also led to the appointment of new governors in southwestern Nimroz province, Kabul, and eastern provinces including Logar. There was no change of provincial leadership in the main regional centers of Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.
The reshuffle comes amid friction between Kabul and Washington over a range of issues, from the U.S. detention of Afghan nationals to a wave of attacks by Afghan troops on U.S. and coalition forces. Those attacks—so-called "green-on-blue" incidents—forced a halt this week to some joint operations between Afghan and U.S. forces. Mr. Obama held a video conference with Mr. Karzai on Wednesday in which the two leaders discussed efforts to halt insider attacks on coalition troops, as well as the growing tide of anger over the anti-Muslim video that has sparked protests around the globe, according to the White House.
Helmand is home to Camp Bastion, the large coalition base that was the scene of a dramatic raid on Friday by a small group of Taliban fighters. Most of the fighters were killed, but the attackers killed two U.S. Marines and destroyed half a squadron of fighter jets.
Ambassador Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had been slated to meet with a group of Afghan governors, including Gov. Mangal, during a visit to Kabul this weekend. Mr. Karzai canceled the meeting amid the furor over the video.
"It had to do with the issues around the world and the need to stay at home more than any political intrigue," said a U.S. official.