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Karzai aide part of wider investigation, Afghan officials say

By Joshua Partlow and David Nakamura
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 11:58 PM

KABUL -- A close adviser to President Hamid Karzai, arrested last month on charges of soliciting a bribe, was also under investigation for allegedly providing luxury vehicles and cash to presidential allies and over telephone contacts with Taliban insurgents, according to Afghan officials familiar with the case.

The Afghan officials also said that it had been Karzai himself who intervened to win the quick release of the aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, even after the arrest had been personally approved by the country's attorney general. The new account suggests that the corruption case against Salehi was wider than previously known and that Karzai acted directly to secure his aide's release.

Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer declined to comment on the new account, which emerged from interviews with half a dozen current and former high-ranking Afghan government officials. The officials said they wanted the fuller story to be aired but insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case and fear of retribution. A legal adviser to Karzai, Nasrullah Stankezi, denied that Karzai had intervened in the release of the aide, saying normal procedures had been followed. Attempts to reach Salehi by phone and at his apartment were unsuccessful.

The intervention by Karzai came after the Afghan investigators had begun to pursue corruption cases against the aide and possibly other Karzai allies inside the presidential palace. A commission formed by Karzai after his aide was released concluded that Afghan agents who had carried out the investigation with support from U.S.-backed law enforcement units had violated Salehi's human rights and were operating outside the constitution.

The back-and-forth revolves around the work of two American-backed Afghan task forces, one known as the Major Crimes Task Force and the other called the Sensitive Investigative Unit. It has created perhaps the most serious crisis this year in relations between Afghanistan and the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Karzai to express her displeasure with any decision that undermines anti-corruption enforcement, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) flew to Kabul this week with a warning to Karzai that his actions put at risk U.S. funding and congressional support for the war.

The Obama administration has put a high priority on cracking down on corruption in Afghanistan, and Gen. David H. Petraeus the new American commander, has made clear that he sees the effort as central to restoring stability to the country.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, declined to comment on the new allegations.

Salehi's arrest followed months of inquiries by the Afghan investigative unit, a police team vetted and trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. government's Afghan Threat Finance Cell. The investigators presented their evidence to the attorney general's office before carrying out the arrest.

Salehi is a Pashtun from Wardak province who heads the administration of Afghanistan's National Security Council. Salehi has played a key role in support of Karzai's efforts to win reconciliation with Taliban insurgents and end the war in Afghanistan. The current and former Afghan officials said he had spoken regularly by cellphone with Taliban representatives and had arranged meetings between the Karzai administration and members of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami. It was unclear why the content of the conversations with insurgents concerned investigators.

The Afghan officials said that the investigation had determined that Salehi had also been involved with making cash payments from a palace fund to pay off Karzai's political supporters, and distributed gifts such as armored Land Cruisers and luxury Lexuses.

"He was one of the most trusted staff members in the palace to do special things," said one Afghan official with direct knowledge of the case.

Spider's web

Rahmatullah Nazari, a deputy attorney general, said wiretapped conversations had also produced evidence that Salehi had accepted gifts, including a car provided to his son, in return for playing a role in opposing a corruption investigation aimed at New Ansari, the nation's largest money-transfer business, which was raided by investigators in January. "The talk on the intercepts was pretty clear that this car was intended to get Salehi to interfere with the investigation," said a senior U.S. official who worked with Afghan anti-corruption teams. The American official said the evidence had been presented to Afghanistan's attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, who signed an arrest warrant for Salehi and instructed the Major Crimes Task Force, an Afghan police unit mentored by the FBI, to execute the arrest.

Other senior government officials, such as Interior Minister Bismillah Khan and National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta, knew in advance that Salehi was to be arrested, the Afghan officials said.

On July 25, at about 5 a.m., a convoy of police trucks arrived outside Salehi's five-story Soviet-built apartment building in the Microyan neighborhood of Kabul. The officers wore masks and were heavily armed, said the building representative, and their early morning arrival set off a panic. Before long, the intelligence agency's rapid-reaction team arrived at the scene and confronted the police. After being shown the warrant, the intelligence officials relented, and within about an hour, Salehi turned himself over and was taken to a counternarcotics detention center in Kabul.

By 6 p.m. the same day, however, police with the Major Crimes Task Force received a second letter from Aloko, the attorney general, ordering Salehi's release.

An Afghan official with direct knowledge of the case said that Aloko had come under "enormous pressure" from Karzai to set Salehi free. A second Afghan official with direct knowledge of the events said that Aloko "received an order from the president" that Salehi be released.

Aloko could not be reached for comment. Another deputy attorney general, Fozel Faqiryar, said that the office came under no pressure from Karzai's office, and that Salehi was released on bail and has been cooperating with the investigation.

According to the Afghan officials, corruption investigators now say they fear for the safety of their families and do not believe it is possible to convict those close to the president. They do not expect Salehi to be indicted. Some believe the two elite task forces will be disbanded. Stankezi, the legal adviser, said that evidence collected by wiretapping was not admissible in court.

Salehi, meanwhile, has returned to his job in the palace.

One official likened Afghan law enforcement to a spider web, capable of trapping small insects but useless against heavier prey. The official likened the political pushback that followed Salehi's arrest to a falcon tearing through a web and said: "I don't want to face the falcon anymore."

Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Quadratullah Andar in Kabul contributed to this report.

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