Correction to This Article
A caption with this article misidentified a U.S. Army soldier as a U.S. Marine.
For General Petraeus, battling corruption in Afghanistan is a priority

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A11

KABUL -- Every day, Gen. David H. Petraeus meets with senior NATO officials at headquarters for a 7:30 a.m. update, and at nearly every session, he returns to an issue that has bedeviled the U.S. campaign for years: Afghan corruption.

In his first month on the job, Petraeus has intensified efforts to uncover the scope and mechanics of the pervasive theft, graft and bribery in the Afghan government, examine U.S. contracting practices, and assist Afghan authorities in arresting and convicting corrupt bureaucrats, according to U.S. and NATO officials.

"It is his drumbeat that he started on Day One," said a NATO military official who participates in the morning "stand-up" meeting. Petraeus sees corruption "as an enemy. It is counter to our strategy. And it is readily apparent to me . . . there is a new sense of urgency."

The issue was also a central concern for Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, as the U.S. military has come to realize that its counterinsurgency goals depend on fighting corruption. NATO surveys have found that anger at corruption is the top reason Afghans support the Taliban over the government.

From police shakedowns to profits from drug trafficking, NATO officials put the yearly price tag of corruption and black-market business at $12.3 billion, just shy of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. Citing U.N. statistics, they estimate that about half of that comes from the smuggling industry and illicit taxes levied on trucks crisscrossing the country. About $2.5 billion is paid in bribes each year, stolen Afghan government revenue tops $1 billion, and billions more is pilfered from foreign aid and NATO contracts, according to a briefing prepared by NATO's anti-corruption task force.

"It has progressively gotten worse. It's at all levels," said one senior NATO official who works on corruption issues. Reversing the situation is "a moral imperative, and it's an operational imperative."

The NATO officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Turning up the pressure

Petraeus has asked his subordinates to brief him more often on progress on this front -- twice a week, instead of once -- and is considering naming a one-star general to oversee anti-corruption work. In his first three weeks in Afghanistan, Petraeus has met with President Hamid Karzai at least 20 times, and corruption has been a regular topic of discussion, the NATO officials said.

In addition to fielding two new teams in Afghanistan to study how American money is spent through reconstruction and security contracts, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is preparing a proposal that would require the Afghan government to meet anti-corruption benchmarks to receive U.S. funds.

"We expect they will live up to their commitments, and we will give them incentives to live up to their commitments," a Western diplomat said.

At an international conference in Kabul this month, the Afghan government pledged to meet several goals within the next year, including publishing the assets of all senior government officials, regulating cash that leaves the country in bulk and drafting laws to help prosecute corrupt bureaucrats.

But some of the government's earlier commitments have not been met. For example, Afghan ministries failed to meet a June deadline to draft an anti-corruption action plan naming three reforms each could undertake.

Western diplomats are concerned that the country's premier anti-corruption body, the High Office of Oversight, suffers from weak leadership and a lack of independence from Karzai. International officials also have long worried that high-level political pressure has prevented indictments of senior Afghan officials suspected of corruption.

"There is no political will on the government side to do anything that is meaningful, although everybody knows they have to say the word 'corruption' every time they talk about Afghanistan," said one Western official who works on the issue in Kabul.

A series of arrests

NATO officials see some hopeful signs -- particularly a string of arrests of senior Afghan army and police officials for drug trafficking, corruption and aiding the Taliban.

In June, Afghan authorities arrested Brig. Gen. Malham Pohanyar, the border police commander in the western province of Herat, on accusations that he was trafficking drugs out of the airport there.

This followed the arrest last October of a senior border police commander in Kandahar, Brig. Gen. Saifullah Hakim, who was charged with collecting the salaries of nonexistent officers and stealing money from a "martyr's fund" for families of slain police officers. A border police official from Paktika province, Col. Ali Shah, has also been arrested, for allegedly stealing and reselling supplies and collecting taxes at illegal checkpoints.

Brig. Gen. Aziz Ahmad Wardak, the Paktia province police chief, was arrested this year on corruption charges and is awaiting trial, according to Afghan officials, and so is the deputy police chief of Kapisa province.

"The recent arrests of corrupt Afghan police and army officers are heartening and represent important steps as the Afghan government works to carry out President Karzai's commitments in recent months to combat corruption," said a senior NATO military officer.

Despite little tangible progress, the senior officer said that Karzai has been "very firm regarding corruption."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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