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

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; A01

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.

An aide's arrest

The current crisis began with the arrest last week of Mohammad Zia Saleh, a senior presidential national security aide, on charges that he had solicited bribes, including an automobile, to help block a corruption probe of New Ansari, a Kabul-based financial firm. The firm is suspected of helping politically connected Afghans transfer millions of dollars out of the country.

The arrest, by Afghan law enforcement without direct U.S. participation, was based in large part on wiretaps and other evidence collected with U.S. assistance by the Major Crimes Task Force. Karzai's sharp reaction startled U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington, and has been the focus of a series of emergency, high-level meetings, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity about a situation he called the "most serious" crisis since Karzai's reelection in a fraud-riddled vote last year.

A statement issued by Karzai's office Wednesday said a special commission is being appointed to conduct a "case by case" review of "all activities" of the task forces. The statement said without elaboration that some of their actions had violated the constitution and Afghan human rights.

Administration attempts at clarification have not gotten far, officials said. In his conversation with Clinton, Karzai's principal response was to rail against Saleh's arrest by masked commandos he accused of "acting like the Russians," who occupied Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

'Watch and learn'

At a senior staff meeting of the U.S. and NATO command in Afghanistan on Thursday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander, instructed officials to "watch and learn" over the next few days before drawing conclusions, a U.S. defense official in Kabul said. "It's not a red line right now. But it's an area of concern," he said.

The defense official speculated that Karzai's reference to "human rights" may refer to publication of Saleh's name, despite Afghan law barring such publication until conviction. "It's the dignity and shame part of it," he said.

But this official and others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, expressed certainty that the real basis of Karzai's concern was the threat that corruption investigations posed to the government itself. Despite the task force successes, U.S. officials have cited repeated instances in recent months in which top government figures intervened to quash corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans.

"If I were in his shoes," the defense official said of Karzai, "I would also be concerned about it. Those high-profile arrests were done by Afghans, reviewed by Afghan judges. . . . They're finding things, and becoming more aggressive. There are people who are corrupt throughout the government who are upset about it. I think [Karzai's] feeling the pressure."

In his inauguration speech last fall, at an international conference in London in January and another in Kabul this summer, and at numerous meetings with senior administration officials, Karzai has said stemming corruption is among his highest priorities. In a communique issued with Obama during his visit here in May, Karzai "reaffirmed his inaugural pledge to bring to justice those involved in corrupt activities."

"Karzai says a lot of the right things," a congressional aide said Thursday. "But when push comes to shove, we don't see it."

At a news conference in Kabul on Thursday, senior Afghan officials sought to play down the notion that Karzai is soft on corruption. They said 54 people had been arrested on charges of corruption, drug trafficking and financial crimes.

Nasrullah Stanezkai, a legal adviser to Karzai, said the government wants to improve, but not disband, the task forces.

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Maimana, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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