By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:16 PM
Tens of millions of dollars are carried out of Afghanistan each month, with no telling how much is illicit. The country's dominant money exchange caters to "narco-traffickers, insurgents, and criminals." All the while, U.S. officials walk a "thin tightrope" in efforts to root out corruption, working with Afghan officials who are awash in graft.
Those grim assessments run like a steady current through secret diplomatic cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during the past two years. Released to several news organization by WikiLeaks, the cables highlight a problem that the U.S. government has sought to keep under wraps.
The disclosures provide new details showing how corruption has undermined progress in a country that is in many ways a 9-year-old project in nation-building for the United States. The fresh revelations could sap support for the war and the willingness of members of Congress to continue backing Afghanistan's fledgling economy with billions of dollars in American aid.
Even apparent breakthroughs in the fight against corruption are portrayed in the cables as cynical attempts engineered by President Hamid Karzai's administration to preserve the status quo.
In a Jan. 5, 2010, document labeled "A Tale of Two Mayors," U.S. officials describe the ouster of former Kabul Mayor Abdul Ahad Sahebi over corruption charges as an apparent case of "kangaroo court justice."
When Sahebi was driven from office after Karzai's reelection, it was seen as the start of a promised crackdown against dishonest politicians. Sahebi had been convicted of "mismanagement of authority" in late 2009, in a case that was described as involving massive embezzlement.
But behind the scenes, U.S. officials were saying in State Department memos that they had not seen evidence to support the conviction, and speculated that Sahebi had been sacrificed by Karzai for political reasons. In meetings with U.S. officials, Sahebi said he was being punished not for taking money, but for renewing a lease on a parcel of city land for $16,000 less than another applicant was willing to pay.
Other documents point to corruption across Afghan society and assess the magnitude of the problem. During a three-month stretch last year, one cable said, more than $190 million was carried out of the country in suitcases and other containers brought through the Kabul airport.
How much of it was being diverted illegally "is impossible to know," the Oct. 19, 2009, cable said. "Drug traffickers, corrupt officials and to a large extent licit business owners do not benefit from keeping millions of dollars in Afghanistan."
The document cites a report from officials in the United Arab Emirates - a destination for much of the cash - that Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood had entered the emirate with $52 million earlier that year, an amount he was allowed to keep "without revealing the money's origin or destination."
At one point last year, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone formally complained to Afghan Attorney General Muhammad Ishaq Aloqo that U.S. officials were alarmed at the number of alleged criminals, including Afghan police implicated in narcotics trafficking, who were being released ahead of trial.
The interventions benefited defendants with political connections, and in some cases were allowing "dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court," according to a cable issued in August 2009.
Public exposure of the corruption problem became a political issue for the Obama administration last summer, threatening relations with Karzai and triggering moves in Congress to withhold billions of dollars in Afghan aid.