By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A09
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), one of the most stalwart backers of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, says Congress is growing increasingly concerned about corruption in that country and that he plans to raise the issue directly with President Hamid Karzai during a visit to Kabul this week.
"The strongest message President Karzai could send is one that elevates the credibility of his government, and that he is to be viewed as a genuine reformer," Kerry said in an interview. "Right now, he is not, and we have to be concerned about this."
The worries have been prompted by a series of congressional, military and independent reports documenting graft and bribery at every level in Afghanistan, problems that have grown worse as the cost of the war has escalated. President Obama raised the corruption issue during an hour-long videoconference with Karzai on Friday, the White House said.
Senior administration officials have been especially concerned about Karzai's move earlier this month to assert control over U.S.-backed investigations into high-level government corruption.
Karzai accused the Major Crimes Task Force and Special Investigative Unit of operating outside the Afghan constitution and violating the civil rights of some of the several dozen officials they have targeted, and said he would issue a decree outlining new regulations for the bodies.
U.S. and British legal and law enforcement teams working with the task forces have worried that Karzai might move to abolish them altogether, although a draft law circulated in recent days appears directed at setting rules for their operations.
Two separate units operate within the Major Crimes Task Force, one made up of Afghan national security directorate officers mentored by the British, and the other aided by the FBI. Their combined case load is about 150, and their goal is to have 200 investigators on staff within a year.
The apparent cause of Karzai's displeasure was the arrest of a senior official, presidential national security aide Mohammad Zia Salehi, on charges that he had solicited bribes to help block a probe of a Kabul-based financial firm suspected of helping politically connected Afghans transfer money out of the country.
Salehi is out on bail, and prosecutors have until early next month to file an indictment against him. It was unclear whether Karzai was most concerned about what he told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was rough treatment of Salehi during the arrest, which law enforcement officials denied, or another aspect of the case. One former Afghan official said Karzai aides had convinced the president, a Pashtun, that the task forces were ethnically biased against Pashtuns in his government.
A senior U.S. official shrugged in frustration at the suggestion, saying that "the easiest way to mobilize support in Afghanistan" is via "nationalism and xenophobia."
Western officials working with Afghan investigators and prosecutors have become increasingly anxious about their safety. "It's certainly been a difficult period for our investigators because of all the rumors that were flying around that [Karzai] wanted to disband" the task forces, said a Western source who was not authorized to speak publicly about their efforts. "They're working cases, they're putting themselves in difficult positions, in danger in some cases," the source said.
Kerry, who has developed a close relationship with Karzai and was instrumental in persuading him to accept international findings of flaws in his reelection vote last fall, said he spoke to the Afghan president this week about the corruption issue "but the telephone is not the place" for deeper discussions.
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that growing congressional concern about the war is based far more on Afghan corruption and lack of effective governance than on the U.S. military's failure to make dramatic inroads in the fight against the Taliban.
"Almost every analysis underscores the fact that the biggest single recruitment tool for the Taliban and the biggest single factor undermining [Afghan] government support is corruption," said Kerry, who will also visit Pakistan during his trip. "The governance problems are more significant than anything else."
Congress and the American public are worried, the senator said, "and they ought to be worried."
A House appropriations subcommittee has suspended consideration of the administration's nonmilitary assistance request for Afghanistan pending what its chairman, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), said is evidence that Karzai has not acted on anti-corruption promises.
The administration has said repeatedly that there is no military solution to the war and that it will require a political outcome. "If you accept that as a reality, rather than an aphorism," Kerry said, "then you have to make these other things work. And right now they're not working. That's the bottom line."
On the military front, Kerry said he will spend "a lot of time" with Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and travel with him to Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan, where a Marine offensive that began in February has made disappointing progress.
As U.S. troop levels reach 100,000, nearly double what they were when Obama took office, Kerry said the moment is approaching for judgments on whether the strategy is working. Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, told him late last year that this December would be time enough to know, Kerry said, and that a promised administration review at that time would be crucial for Congress.
Partlow reported from Kabul.