Afghan officials challenge U.S. on aid contract abuses

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 David Nakamura
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

KABUL -- A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai challenged the United States on Monday to clean up fraud and corruption within the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid contracts it distributes to Afghan companies each year, saying that abuse is far worse than any irregularities in the Karzai administration.

Waheed Omer used his weekly news conference to take the offensive in the ongoing political battle between the Karzai government and U.S. officials over the mismanagement of international money.

Of every $100 million of aid coming into the country, Omer said, 80 percent is controlled by the United States and NATO. Therefore, he said, it is up to international officials to enact safeguards and root out illegal practices.

"Corruption is widely affecting the multimillion-dollar contracts going to Afghans, who are becoming terribly rich out of those contracts," Omer said. "We want the international community to work with the government of Afghanistan to eliminate these sources of corruption and target the roots and sources of corruption. A major part are these international contracts."

Omer's remarks came just days after Karzai finished a series of meetings with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who had flown to Kabul to push Karzai to crack down on corruption within his administration. Questions sent to Kerry through aides were not immediately answered.

Last month, Mohammad Zia Salehi, a high-level Karzai aide, was arrested by Afghanistan's Major Crimes Task Force after allegedly being overheard in a wire-tap soliciting a bribe of an automobile worth $10,000. Salehi was released from jail within hours after Karzai personally intervened, according to Afghan officials familiar with the case. Karzai has said he acted because Salehi's human rights were violated and the wire-tap was against Afghan rules.

The Washington Post reported last week that Salehi was also being investigated for doling out luxury automobiles and cash to Karzai allies and talking regularly with Taliban insurgents.

Asked to respond to those new allegations, Omer said: "In terms of the official information this office has received, this arrest was specifically for an alleged case of soliciting a bribe purported to be in the shape of a car. . . . All details of those other allegations are not part of this case as described to the government of Afghanistan."

Karzai has been particularly critical of the private security forces, which number more than 30,000 armed guards working primarily with western organizations, including the U.S. military.

"We will take steps to stop corruption, whether it be in customs or in services. But the government wants also to look into the wide-ranging corruption in the international forces contracts. One area is the private security companies, which are making billions of dollars and threaten the security," Omer said.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO's force in Afghanistan, has already established two task forces to examine corruption -- one on international contracts and another on private security firms.

"ISAF will soon issue comprehensive contracting guidance that will ensure our contracting dollars best serve the Afghan people as well as ISAF's mission," said a spokesman, Maj. Joel Harper.

Meanwhile, the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting announced Monday that it will undertake a week-long examination of U.S. construction contracts in Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Michael Thibault said in a statement that $4 billion was wasted on construction in Iraq, and similar problems could be found in Afghanistan.

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