Karzai rift prompts U.S. to reevaluate anti-corruption strategy in Afghanistan

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 3:18 AM

Senior Obama administration officials have concluded they need to step back from promoting American-style law enforcement as the main means of fighting corruption in Afghanistan because of the rift it has caused with President Hamid Karzai.

President Obama's top national security advisers, who will meet with him this week to discuss the problem, do not yet agree on the contours of a new approach, according to U.S. civilian and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy. But the officials said there is a growing consensus that key corruption cases against people in Karzai's government should be resolved with face-saving compromises behind closed doors instead of public prosecutions.

"The current approach is not tenable," said an administration official who, like others interviewed, agreed to discuss internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. "What will we get out of it? We'll arrest a few mid-level Afghans, but we'll lose our ability to operate there and achieve our principal goals."

Relations between Karzai and the United States have nosedived since the arrest of one of his palace aides on bribery charges six weeks ago. The arrest - made by an Afghan anti-graft task force that has received extensive financing, training, equipment and intelligence support from the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies - proved embarrassing for the Afghan leader. Karzai responded by ordering the aide released and instructing his Justice Ministry to impose new rules limiting international involvement in corruption investigations.

"We need to convince him we're not on a witch hunt but that we need his cooperation," said the U.S. official. The Bush and Obama administrations have had to adjust their policies in Afghanistan on several occasions after resistance from Karzai.

But de-emphasizing prosecutions runs the risk of making the administration appear weak in the face of the Afghan leader's objections. Officials from the Justice and Treasury departments, which have sent teams of investigators and mentors to Afghanistan in response to earlier pleas from the White House and State Department to ramp up anti-corruption efforts, may resist the move. And the change almost certainly will draw fire from some in the military and diplomatic corps who believe a strong public push against high-level graft is key to reducing the culture of impunity that pervades the country, as well as from some members of Congress who deem such efforts essential to securing support for $3.9 billion in additional reconstruction funds sought by the Obama administration.

One U.S. official who opposes a policy change argued that the Afghan public may not share Karzai's perspective.

"The Afghans want to see their leaders held to account," the official said. "They don't want these cases swept under the rug."

Ties to insurgency

The debate turns largely on how various administration officials view the connection between corruption and the insurgency.

Some officials, principally at the staff level, contend that government venality and incompetence is the principal reason Afghans are joining, supporting or tolerating the Taliban. Other administration and military officials, particularly those at senior levels, maintain that graft is just one of many factors - along with sanctuaries in Pakistan, historical tribal grievances and anger at the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil - that fuel the conflict.

Compounding the challenge is that many Afghan officials who are regarded as corrupt also provide valuable assistance to U.S. forces, including sensitive intelligence. Some, including the palace aide, are on the CIA's payroll - a fact not initially known to investigators working on the case.

"There's been the schizophrenia that we haven't been able to resolve," the administration official said. "We want to fight corruption, but we also want to use these guys."

The National Security Council recently ordered all U.S. agencies involved in Afghanistan, including the CIA, to list whom they are paying, according to a senior administration official working on Afghanistan policy. The effort, which even extends to U.S. Agency for International Development funds going to governors so they can hire administrative staff, is designed to identify double-dipping but also to ensure "we're not speaking out of both sides of our mouth," the senior official said.

For those who view corruption as a central issue, the challenge is what to do about it. The Afghan constitution effectively allows the president to select province and district governors, as well as local police chiefs. That has created what some U.S. government analysts call a "pyramid of corruption" in which some local officials have to pay semiannual bribes to more senior officials, ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, to maintain their positions. To raise those funds, the local officials shake down the population, which helps drive some of them to the Taliban. The analysts contend that much of that money eventually makes its way to Karzai's cronies, who deposit it in offshore accounts they control.

But structural changes to limit incentives for graft are unlikely to occur before July, when Obama intends to begin reducing the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More-limited efforts by U.S. diplomats and military commanders to get Karzai to purge corrupt local officials have been hindered by another challenge: the lack of detailed intelligence about corruption networks.

"We don't have the time or the knowledge to address this in a comprehensive way," said a U.S. military official involved in Afghanistan matters.

As a consequence, senior officials are pushing for a middle-ground solution - enough to show the Afghan people and members of Congress that corruption is being tackled, but not so comprehensively as to demand the expansion of the U.S.-led nation-building mission.

The initial attempt at striking that balance was part of Obama's review of Afghan war strategy last fall. Two weeks before the president announced he was sending 30,000 more troops, Karzai bowed to U.S. pressure and established a new anti-corruption organization within his Interior Ministry called the Major Crimes Task Force. In the following months, the U.S. Justice Department sent dozens of law enforcement specialists from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Adminitration to help build the task force and teach Afghan investigators how to assemble and prosecute graft cases.

Although the American personnel would effectively be conducting the investigations and building the cases behind the scenes, the assumption in Washington was that the task force would be seen as an Afghan initiative and it would be tolerated by Karzai. But the organization was soon regarded in Kabul as an American endeavor with an Afghan facade. An even bigger problem, U.S. officials said, was that the Americans advising the organization did not coordinate their efforts with senior diplomats and military commanders to weigh the costs and benefits of targeting certain people.

The administration official said the State Department and the Pentagon were "caught off-guard" by the decision to conduct a middle-of-the-night raid to arrest the Karzai aide in late July. "These kinds of raids are inherently political issues that need to be discussed at the highest levels of our government before they are carried out," the official said.

The official said U.S. law enforcement personnel working on Afghan corruption have defended the raid as an Afghan operation that was endorsed by senior officials at the Justice Ministry.

"But Karzai doesn't see it that that way," the official said. "To him, this was an American operation." The law enforcement advisers have been allowed to pursue cases as they see fit in part because "there's no [U.S. government] anti-corruption strategy that says this is what we're going to do," the senior administration official said.

Debate over raids

Law enforcement advisers have maintained in internal discussions among U.S. officials that raids are necessary to prevent suspects from fleeing. They note that the country's former minister of Islamic affairs was able to flee the country after being accused of extorting millions of dollars from companies seeking contracts to transport religious pilgrims.

"Perhaps that's good enough for Afghanistan," said a U.S. official working on corruption issues in Kabul. "Sure, he isn't in jail, but he's no longer in a position to steal. We should see that as a victory."

Several U.S. officials in Washington and Kabul have taken to citing as a possible model the approach Gen. David H. Petraeus took in dealing with cases of corrupt government conduct in Iraq while he was the top commander there.

"It was never in public and it was always behind closed doors, and it was always aimed at [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] taking ownership of whatever solution was devised," said retired Col. Peter Mansoor, Petraeus's former executive officer in Baghdad. "We knew if it was forced on them, there would be push-back and it would be a matter of face and honor."

Petraeus already has taken steps to assert more control over how corruption investigations are coordinated and implemented. He has asked Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a counterinsurgency expert, to lead an interagency task force on Afghan graft.

There is a growing view at the U.S. and NATO headquarters in Kabul that "the law enforcement approach to corruption mucks up our strategic interests," said the U.S. official there.

That official and several others who have concluded the current strategy is not working said they do not want the FBI and DEA teams to go home or tone down their investigative work. At issue is what happens after they generate clear evidence of wrongdoing against government officials and others who are close to Karzai.

"We need to go to Karzai privately and let him find a face-saving way to deal with it," a senior military official said. "Public confrontation gets him into a defensive crouch. Private confrontation may be more effective."

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