A rift over corruption

U.S. worried by Hamid Karzai's attempt to assert control over corruption probes

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 Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

Obama administration officials fear that a move by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to assert control over U.S.-backed corruption investigations might provoke the biggest crisis in U.S.-Afghan relations since last year's fraud-riddled election and could further threaten congressional approval of billions of dollars in pending aid.

The concerns were sparked by Karzai's decision this week to order a probe of two anti-corruption units that have been involved in the recent arrest of several senior government officials on graft and bribery allegations. Karzai said the investigators, who have been aided by U.S. law enforcement advisers and wiretap technology, were acting outside the Afghan constitution.

Afghanistan's attorney general said on Thursday that Karzai plans to issue a decree outlining new regulations for the bodies, the Major Crimes Task Force and Special Investigative Unit.

Officials in Washington have moved urgently to ensure that anti-corruption efforts are not derailed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most senior U.S. official to discuss the matter with Karzai this week, conveyed the message that "these two anti-corruption bodies represent important progress," a senior administration official said, "and any steps to undercut or remove powers or authorities from them would be a step backwards."

Just last week, Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Congress that the successful task force operations were proof that Karzai is serious about fighting corruption.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), whose House Appropriations subcommittee has cited concerns about corruption in withholding approval of an administration request for nearly $4 billion in non-military aid to Afghanistan for fiscal 2011, called Karzai's actions "extremely troubling." She said they were "more than just disconcerting; they put at jeopardy our mission."

"That money will not go forward until I get clearance that the promises and commitments that have been made by the Afghan government to work in good faith to stop corruption have taken place," Lowey said in a telephone interview. She noted that other funds already in the pipeline and a supplemental appropriation President Obama signed last week will allow civilian operations in Afghanistan to continue into the fall.

Affecting public support

But administration concerns extend far beyond the current funding request. There are growing worries that U.S. public support for the war, already dwindling in the face of rising combat casualties and the increasing costs of the conflict, will diminish further if voters continue to see Karzai's government as hopelessly corrupt.

Corruption has also been identified in internal U.S. analyses as the leading concern of Afghan citizens, above worries about security. "It's obviously an important component to send a message to the Afghan people that corruption is taken seriously," a senior administration official said.

Since early last year, Holbrooke told Lowey's subcommittee last week, the administration has known that "if corruption isn't dealt with, other things won't succeed. We had stated that it was a malignancy that could destroy everything else we were doing."

The administration established the task forces more than a year ago, sending scores of Treasury and Justice Department, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration officials to assist vetted Afghan investigators in corruption probes. Although the units' work has led to several dozen arrests, a number of high-profile cases have been derailed amid ongoing reports that Afghan officials are sending pallets of cash abroad and are building mansions in Kabul and in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

With U.S. analyses warning that increased U.S. spending in Afghanistan will probably promote even more corruption, the military has established its own task forces to investigate reports that money from defense contracts is being funneled to political power brokers, warlords and the Taliban.

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