NATO chief: Karzai must crack down on graft

Despite media reports of corruption at Kabul Bank, Afghan officials insist that it is not in danger of collapse.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 10:46 PM

Reports about endemic corruption in Afghanistan are undermining public support for the war among NATO allies, the military alliance's leader warned Tuesday.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he has told Afghan President Hamid Karzai several times that he needs to crack down on graft. Karzai has irritated allies in Washington and in European capitals by blocking corruption investigations of members of his palace staff. Meantime, U.S. officials have raised concerns that billions of dollars in foreign aid to Afghanistan are being siphoned off or diverted.

"It is essential that they strengthen the fight against corruption," Rasmussen said Tuesday in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors. "All these stories about irregularities and corruption are damaging for public support for our presence in Afghanistan."

Equally important, he said, is the need for ordinary Afghans to develop confidence in their government instead of the Taliban and other insurgents.

"He must get this right," Rasmussen said of Karzai. "And I think he understands it is crucial."

Although NATO has expanded its presence in Afghanistan over the past year - led by an increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops - it is grappling with the pending exits of some key contributors. The Netherlands withdrew its 2,000-member force last month, and Canada is scheduled to bring its 3,000 troops home next summer. Britain has said it plans to end combat missions by 2015 and possibly start withdrawing some forces next year.

Rasmussen said pressure for a quicker pullout has eased since an international conference in Kabul in July endorsed a goal to have Afghan troops take the lead in all security operations by the end of 2014. NATO forces would remain after that to train and advise the Afghans, but in much lower numbers.

About 41,000 NATO and other foreign forces are currently in Afghanistan, in addition to about 100,000 U.S. troops.

Rasmussen, who was in Washington to meet with President Obama at the White House, said he hoped that Afghan forces could take over security responsibilities in at least some parts of the country by next July. That would dovetail with Obama's pledge to start withdrawing at least some U.S. forces by then.

The 2014 timetable, Rasmussen said, has "given some clarity" to NATO members and partners that had disagreed about when Afghan forces should be expected to fend largely for themselves.

At the same time, he cautioned that the timetable - which he variously characterized as "a road map" and "an ambition" - is not set in stone and will depend on how much progress is made in fighting the Taliban.

Another question is whether Afghanistan's troops and police officers, most of whom are illiterate and have scant experience, will be up to the job. NATO has tried since 2002 to rebuild the security forces, but the effort was dogged by so many problems that U.S. commanders announced last year that they were restarting the training program from scratch.

And although U.S. officials say matters have improved, NATO is still struggling to fill a long-standing request for 450 additional trainers.

"Seen retrospectively, I think, one of the problems is that we have underestimated the task," Rasmussen said of the training effort. "That's exactly the problem - we started too late."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company