U.S. officials say Karzai aides are derailing corruption cases involving elite

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja
By Greg Miller and Ernesto Londoño
Monday, June 28, 2010

Top officials in President Hamid Karzai's government have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans, according to U.S. officials who have provided Afghanistan's authorities with wiretapping technology and other assistance in efforts to crack down on endemic graft.

In recent months, the U.S. officials said, Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest and disregard evidence against executives of a major financial firm suspected of helping the nation's elite move millions of dollars overseas.

As a result, U.S. advisers sent to Kabul by the Justice Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have come to see Afghanistan's corruption problem in increasingly stark terms.

"Above a certain level, people are being very well protected," said a senior U.S. official involved in the investigations.

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar denied investigations had been derailed. "There is no case, no instance, in which the palace or anyone from the palace has interfered with a case," he said.

Afghanistan is awash in international aid and regarded as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Indeed, even as the United States and its allies pour money in, U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus. The money, as first reported in The Washington Post in February, is often carried out in full view of customs officials at Kabul's airport, where such transfers are legal as long as they are declared. Officials suspect much of the cash is going to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, where elite Afghans, including Karzai's older brother, have villas.

For the Obama administration, the ability of Afghan investigators to crack down on corruption is crucial. If American voters see Karzai's government as hopelessly corrupt, public support for the war could plunge. Corruption also fuels the Taliban insurgency and complicates efforts to persuade ordinary Afghans to side with leaders in Kabul.

Afghanistan's attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, was seen as a potential ally against corruption when he took the job two years ago. Some investigations have ended in convictions. But U.S. officials said that Aloko, a native of Kandahar province who studied law in Germany, has repeatedly impeded prosecutions of suspects with political ties.

In meetings with U.S. Justice Department officials, Aloko has seemed almost apologetic and acknowledged coming under pressure from Karzai as well as members of parliament, officials said. On one occasion, according to a U.S. official, Aloko told his American counterparts, "I'm doing this because that is what the president tells me I have to do."

The official, like others quoted in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive investigations.

Aloko referred questions to his deputy, Rahmatullah Nazari, who blamed resource constraints for his office's failure to win more corruption convictions. "There isn't any kind of pressure on the attorney general's office," Nazari said. "If anyone caves to pressure, they should go to prison."

But U.S. officials point to multiple instances of interference. The most prominent example to surface publicly involves Afghanistan's former minister of Islamic affairs, who fled the country this year as prosecutors were preparing to charge him with extorting millions of dollars from companies seeking contracts to take pilgrims to the Muslim holy land, a trip known as the hajj.

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