By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 1:04 AM
In the span of several months, U.S.-backed investigative teams have assembled alarming evidence of rampant corruption in Afghanistan and the extent to which it reaches the highest ranks of that nation's government.
But the American effort to increase Afghanistan's capacity to combat corruption has also had unintended consequences, aggravating the U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and producing embarrassing revelations that have undermined attempts to build popular trust in the government in Kabul - a key component of the Obama administration's counterinsurgency campaign.
After pouring more resources into the anti-corruption effort over the past 18 months - including teams of advisers and sophisticated wiretapping technology - administration officials said there is growing concern that rooting out graft is paradoxically reinforcing perceptions that the problem is endemic.
"Our big push to help build Afghan institutions for transparency and anti-corruption has had the dismaying effect of bringing a lot of stuff to light that has sparked political crises," said a senior administration official. "Afghan institutions are growing more capable" of fighting corruption, the official said. But their work has the potential to "set us back."
The quandary in many ways reflects the extent to which the U.S. government has operated at cross-purposes in Afghanistan, doling out vast sums of money to win over warlords and buy security for military convoys, then cracking down on abuse in a system awash in American cash.
After nearly nine years of nation-building in Afghanistan, experts said, the U.S. government faces mounting evidence that it has helped to assemble one of the most corrupt governments in the world.
"I don't know how you can disaggregate the way in which [the U.S. government] has funneled money into Afghanistan from the crisis of corruption that presents itself today," said C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service who has monitored the U.S. role in Afghanistan. "We are a government at odds with ourselves."
Underscoring the Obama administration's sensitivity on the subject, officials persuaded Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to block the release of a report on corruption in Afghanistan that the panel's staff completed last month. Kerry had publicly mentioned that the report was coming. An administration official said the concern was about sensitive information contained in the document, but others blamed fears that its release would lead to further embarrassment for the U.S. government and Karzai.
There is no authoritative estimate of the toll that corruption has taken on the Afghan economy, which is sustained to a large extent by billions of dollars in American aid, as well as profits from drug trafficking.
U.S. officials acknowledge that they are still struggling to plug large leaks. An estimated $1 billion a year, for example, is leaving the country in bags of cash carried out of Kabul airport. Authorities suspect that much of the outflow is diverted foreign aid.
U.S. authorities have shown similarly limited ability to contain another emerging crisis: the potential collapse of Kabul Bank.
The institution was created with U.S. backing as a means of moving more of Afghanistan's money into modern financial channels. Depositors have withdrawn tens of millions of dollars in recent days amid evidence that shareholders - including Karzai's brother Mahmoud - used money to enrich themselves and acquire villas in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai.
Corruption had been a secondary issue in Afghanistan until a combination of factors pushed it to the forefront this year. Those factors include Washington's growing disillusionment with Karzai, and a warning from the U.S. military command last year that graft threatened to turn Afghans away from their government and toward the Taliban.
Even so, many officials trace the trajectory of the corruption issue back even further, to December 2008 and the flipping of a switch at a still-secret facility in Kabul. Inside, U.S. officials oversee dozens of Afghan translators transcribing cellphone conversations being intercepted by an American wiretapping network. The system was initially installed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as part of an effort to track the flow of drug money to insurgents.
"It was not designed to specifically focus on corruption," said Michael Braun, a former operations chief for the DEA. "With that said, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that when you follow the money, it will take you to the drugs, the guns and corrupt officials."
At the facility, the Afghan translators almost immediately began catching Afghan officials soliciting bribes and otherwise using their public positions for private gain. U.S. officials have described the amount of evidence as an "avalanche" that accounts for dozens of corruption cases that have entered the prosecutorial pipeline only this year.
At the same time, U.S.-backed investigative teams have multiplied. The FBI and its British counterpart inaugurated a new Major Crimes Task Force this year. A U.S. Embassy official in Kabul said more than 250 Afghan investigators, prosecutors and judges have been vetted and trained by U.S. mentors, including at a DEA facility in Quantico.
Their expanding role and effectiveness have triggered a power struggle in the Afghan capital, particularly after their investigations implicated officials with close connections to Karzai.
Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the nation's minister of Islamic affairs, was accused of extorting millions of dollars from companies seeking contracts to take pilgrims to the Muslim holy land. He fled the country this year - aided by intervention from Karzai's inner circle.
Perhaps stung by that example, U.S. and Afghan authorities took a very different approach in arresting Mohammad Zia Salehi, a Karzai national security adviser, last month. Acting on wiretap evidence that Salehi had taken a bribe in exchange for trying to shut down a separate inquiry, Afghan authorities in commando-like gear arrested him at his house shortly before dawn.
Karzai, outraged, freed Salehi and has threatened to rein in the anti-corruption units, which he has accused of violating the Afghan constitution and using Soviet-style tactics.
U.S. officials said the units had already frequently encountered interference from the palace, including instances in which the Afghan attorney general had removed names of politically connected Afghans from case files and ordered other probes closed.
Beyond the rift with Karzai, the Salehi case has brought scrutiny to the activities of other U.S. agencies - particularly the CIA, which began delivering suitcases of cash to warlords within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said Salehi is one of many Afghan officials collecting routine payments from the CIA. A U.S. official defended the arrangement, portraying the anti-corruption teams as zealous and shortsighted. Paying off warlords and officials who are in position to provide information or influence, he said, is crucial to U.S. objectives.
U.S. officials involved in the anti-corruption work, by contrast, have said that the agency payments only encourage Afghans to see graft and payoffs as perks. One U.S. official said CIA payments to Afghans often exceed in a single month the amount of money they collect in their U.S.-supported salaries for an entire year.
"There are a dozen more Salehi cases out there," said the official, who is involved in anti-corruption work.
The friction over pursuing them plays out in multi-agency meetings at the embassy in Kabul, where investigative targets are identified and discussed.
"I never heard anyone or saw anyone try to play the trump card of 'No, you can't do him,' " the official said. "But you knew who was not happy with this guy being on the discussion list."