By Joshua Partlow and Greg Miller
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 5, 2010; A09
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.
The arrest of Saleh, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was based largely on evidence obtained from a wiretapping system that was installed to target drug traffickers but has implicated influential Afghans in widespread graft.
The U.S. official said the court-approved wiretaps showed that associates of New Ansari had agreed to give a car valued at about $10,000 to Saleh's son "to get the investigation shut down."
U.S. officials have accused Karzai's government of routinely interfering in corruption probes and protecting politically connected Afghans from prosecution. The most high-profile case involved Afghanistan's former Islamic affairs minister, who was allowed to flee the country even while he was under investigation for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
Karzai aides have denied the allegations and accused U.S. officials of exploiting the issue for political purposes and exerting improper influence in corruption probes.
Karzai's decision to order an investigation of the Major Crimes Task Force was seen by some as a political ploy, designed to demonstrate his loyalty to his inner circle more than to disrupt corruption cases.
"But the concern is if they use this as an excuse to cut back on the authority of the Major Crimes Task Force, then it really is a problem," the U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Omar said Saleh was released the day after his arrest.
The Major Crimes Task Force has worked on several other recent corruption cases that have led to arrests.
In June, Afghan authorities arrested Brig. Gen. Malham Pohanyar, the border police commander in the western province of Herat, on charges that he was collaborating with drug traffickers. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Brig. Gen. Saifullah Hakim, a senior border police official from Kandahar, was arrested last year for allegedly collecting the salaries of nonexistent officers and stealing money from a "martyrs 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.
Miller reported from Washington.