Karzai calls for probe of U.S.-backed anti-corruption task force

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
By Joshua Partlow and Greg Miller
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 5, 2010

MAIMANA, AFGHANISTAN -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for an investigation into a U.S.-backed anti-corruption task force, following the arrest of several senior Afghan officials on graft charges.

The new probe centers on the Major Crimes Task Force, an investigative unit launched last year in which U.S. and British law enforcement officers oversee the work of Afghan police and intelligence officials. The unit played a key role in the arrest last week of Mohammad Zia Saleh, an official in the office of the national security adviser.

Saleh, one of the most senior officials targeted so far by the task force, was taken at night from his home for allegedly asking for a bribe, said Waheed Omar, Karzai's spokesman.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the arrest was based on wiretaps and other evidence that Saleh had been bribed to help block a corruption probe of New Ansari, a Kabul-based financial firm suspected of helping politically connected Afghans transfer millions of dollars out of the country.

Omar said Saleh's arrest alone had not triggered the investigation into the task force.

"This institution had actually been engaging in activities which go beyond the constitution and which does not adhere to Afghanistan's rules and regulations," he said.

Such remarks reflect a struggle between the Obama administration and Karzai's government over efforts to root out graft in a country that ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has made the fight against corruption a top priority. While Karzai has publicly pledged to combat the widespread theft and bribery in his administration, there has been little significant reform, and political pressure has hampered corruption investigations in the past.

Since it began in October 2009, the Major Crimes Task Force has become a rare bright spot, using wiretap technology provided by the United States and other means to build evidence against corrupt officials.

If Karzai comes out strongly against the task force's work, it could force U.S. officials into a difficult spot, caught between pushing hard to prosecute corruption cases and potentially damaging relations with Karzai. Already U.S. officials are concerned that members of the unit may be in danger.

Last week, Karzai convened a commission of top Afghan justice officials to review the work of the Major Crimes Task Force, and its members reported at a meeting Wednesday that human rights have not been respected in some cases, according to a statement issued by Karzai's office.

Omar said that Karzai's goal is to have the Major Crimes Task Force brought under the Afghan government structure and to establish a clear statutory basis for how investigations, arrests, trials and detentions are carried out in corruption cases.

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