By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 11:38 PM
KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke out angrily Thursday against the arrest of one of his closest aides this summer on corruption charges, saying that the detention was conducted in a manner "exactly reminiscent of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan" and that the investigation was illegally run by "foreign elements."
The president's remarks, delivered at a news conference in the capital, are likely to fuel criticism that he is unwilling to crack down on the pervasive corruption within his administration. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who appeared with Karzai on Thursday, did not publicly challenge him on either the corruption issue or the Afghan president's contention that the arrest represented an abuse of human rights.
"I think that the key here is that the fight against corruption needs to be Afghan-led," Gates said. "This is a sovereign country."
Karzai ordered the release of his aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, shortly after his detention July 25 on charges of soliciting bribes.
The closest Gates came to criticizing Karzai was his statement that Afghanistan's anti-corruption and special investigative units need to "have credibility in the international community." The defense secretary took a more forceful position with Karzai in their private meeting, which preceded their joint news conference, a senior defense official said.
Two U.S.-backed Afghan task forces, known as the Major Crimes Task Force and the Special Investigative Unit, oversaw Salehi's investigation and arrest. "I intervened to have him released because the arrest was illegally done and wrongfully done," Karzai told reporters.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Thursday that the dispute over the detention and release of Salehi had basically been settled.
"There clearly was some friction over the arrest of the individual who was in the palace, and frankly, those issues, perceptions and so forth have been resolved," Petraeus said.
The general said Karzai had assured President Obama that he is committed to fighting corruption and wants to strengthen the two organizations that oversaw the arrest and detention of Salehi.
Although the Obama administration and U.S. officials in Afghanistan remain concerned about corruption within Karzai's government, some have said that publicly chastising the Afghan administration would only undermine the war effort, creating the impression that U.S. troops are fighting and dying to defend an unworthy partner. Privately, senior U.S. officials have expressed frustration over Salehi's release.
Publicly scolding Karzai would also cause further strain in the already complex relationship between him and the U.S. government, officials said.
Last month, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) flew to Kabul to warn Karzai that his actions were putting congressional funding for Afghan reconstruction and the war effort at risk. That stern warning did not cause Karzai to moderate his public statements.
The president said his aide was bound in chains and hauled out of his house, adding that he feared the arrest suggested the actions of an abusive police state.
"So I ordered an investigation," he said. "Corruption has to be fought legally and correctly, not in a manner of banditry or the violation of the rights of people."