A subtler tack to fight Afghan corruption?

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

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."

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