Greg Miller and Ernesto Londoño at WaPo:
Top officials in President Hamid Karzai’s government have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans, according to U.S. officials who have provided Afghanistan’s authorities with wiretapping technology and other assistance in efforts to crack down on endemic graft.
In recent months, the U.S. officials said, Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest and disregard evidence against executives of a major financial firm suspected of helping the nation’s elite move millions of dollars overseas.
As a result, U.S. advisers sent to Kabul by the Justice Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have come to see Afghanistan’s corruption problem in increasingly stark terms.
“Above a certain level, people are being very well protected,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the investigations.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar denied investigations had been derailed. “There is no case, no instance, in which the palace or anyone from the palace has interfered with a case,” he said.
Afghanistan is awash in international aid and regarded as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Indeed, even as the United States and its allies pour money in, U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus.
While the Afghan government, one of the most corrupt in the world, has made several attempts at reigning in the those responsible for hindering corruption cases, most have failed miserably.
Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, was seen as a potential ally against corruption when he took the job two years ago. Some investigations have ended in convictions. But U.S. officials said that Aloko, a native of Kandahar province who studied law in Germany, has repeatedly impeded prosecutions of suspects with political ties.
Some suggest Karzai in fact, is running a game of smoke and mirrors in an effort to garner the favor or various foreign nations.
Critics say Karzai’s initiatives are meant to appease the international community. “It’s all a show,” lawmaker Sayed Rahman said, noting that no senior government official has been imprisoned on corruption charges.
Over the past year, U.S. officials said, Afghan investigators have assembled evidence against three Karzai-appointed provincial governors accused of embezzlement or bribery. All three cases have been blocked. The interference has persisted, officials said, despite Karzai’s pledge in November during his second inaugural address to make fighting corruption a focus of his new term. The extent of the interference has become evident, officials said, in large part because of improvements in Afghan authorities’ ability to pursue corruption cases.
Afghanistan’s attorney general on Tuesday accused the U.S. ambassador in Kabul of threatening to have him ousted if he didn’t pursue the case of a banker suspected of fraud.
Mohammed Ishaq Aloko lashed out at Karl W. Eikenberry during a news conference in the Afghan capital convened to dispute the allegation that his office’s corruption task force routinely bows to political pressure from President Hamid Karzai’s administration. The Washington Post reported Monday that U.S. officials working with the attorney general’s office are frustrated by political meddling that derails corruption probes.
Aloko described his office as “independent” and immune to political influence. He said Eikenberry recently violated “diplomatic ethics” by suggesting that Aloko could lose his job if he didn’t aggressively prosecute a banker incriminated during the prosecution of a minister who left the country after being charged with corruption.
“The ambassador’s discussions with his counterparts are private, and we’re not going to comment on them,” said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
‘The US ambassador tells me that ‘if you don’t arrest Haji Azimi, then you should resign,” Aloko told a press conference here. ‘It is against all diplomatic principles to threaten the attorney general of a country like this.’
The comments by the country’s top prosecutor, which could strain relations between Kabul and Washington, came a day after a US daily quoted unnamed US officials as saying that Aloko has repeatedly impeded the prosecution of suspects with political ties.
The Washington Post reported that among those protected was Haji Muhammad Rafi Azimi, deputy chairman of the Afghan United Bank, a private bank with its headquarters in Kabul.
Azimi was heard on a wiretap recording discussing bribes paid to Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the former minister for religious affairs, the paper said.
Chakari, who is accused of taking bribes from companies seeking contracts to take pilgrims to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, has fled the country and currently lives in London.
Since Chakari could not be put to trial due to the lack of an extradition treaty between Afghanistan and Britain, US officials instead asked Aloko to arrest Azimi, pointing to the existence of evidence such as the wiretap recording, the paper reported.
‘I could not arrest Azimi, because we don’t have any evidence against him,’ Aloko said in Tuesday’s press conference.
Aloko said he told Eikenberry that only the country’s parliament or President Hamid Karzai had the authority to ask for his resignation, adding that after Eikenberry failed to persuade him, ‘he got upset and left my office’.
Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:
As the debate over the road ahead in Afghanistan heats up in Congress, Democrats are using the power of the purse to seek broad changes in the administration’s policy and express their unhappiness with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.
In the latest move, a leading House appropriator promised Monday to remove all the Afghanistan foreign operations and aid money from next year’s funding unless she can be assured none of the funds are being wasted due to corruption in the Afghanistan government.
“I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists,” foreign ops subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, said. “Furthermore, the government of Afghanistan must demonstrate that corruption is being aggressively investigated and prosecuted.”
Her subcommittee will mark up the fiscal 2011 state and foreign ops appropriations bill Wednesday. When they do, billions of dollars the president requested for all sorts of non-military work in Afghanistan will not be in the bill.
A spokesperson for Lowey said she was responding, in part, to two articles published Monday that described some of the abuses of U.S. taxpayer funds going to Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than $3 billion of cash has been flown out of the Kabul airport over the last three years, packed in suitcases, and a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation is underway. The Washington Post reported Monday that Karzai is protecting high-level political officials from scrutiny related to the missing funds.
Lowey’s spokesman told The Cable that the largest pots of money to be affected are about $3.3 billion in economic support funds and about $450 million requested for anti-narcotics and law enforcement aid to Afghanistan. Other accounts to be excluded include global health money, anti-terrorism funds, and military training funds for Afghanistan army officers. Humanitarian aid would not be affected.
Lowey also tied the issue to the still struggling U.S. economy, a theme that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, focused on in a separate speech today. Democrats in Congress are preparing to go home to their districts after this week for a July 4 recess that will kick off the congressional campaign season. Accordingly, they are amplifying their rhetoric about deficit spending and expressing their unhappiness with the progress of the war in Afghanistan.
“Too many Americans are suffering in this economy for us to put their hard-earned tax dollars into the hands of criminals overseas,” Lowey said.
Daphne Eviatar at Huffington Post:
Lowey’s statement is an understandable expression of frustration. But cutting off foreign aid now is absolutely the wrong approach for the United States to take in Afghanistan.
After several visits to Afghanistan in the last few years, Human Rights First issued recommendations to the Obama administration last year specifically recommending that the United States help train Afghan investigators on evidence collection and documentation and help Afghan prosecutors provide fair prosecutions. Current plans do just that, in addition to working with Afghan officials on improving their own detention facilities and their judiciary.
Lowey’s frustration is understandable, not only because of the Washington Post‘s recent news stories, but also because of this report prepared for the State Department last year that reviewed a broad range of Afghan institutions and concluded that corruption is rampant and growing. Not surprisingly, thirty years of war has undermined the development of reliable and legitimate institutions, and of a judicial system able to keep corruption in check. But to keep Afghanistan from returning to Taliban rule or simply descending into chaos, the United States has an obligation to help the Afghan government develop and enforce laws that reduce corruption and improve government transparency. Given the recent reports that Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of natural resources it’s eager to exploit, transparency will be critical to make sure the proceeds of those riches don’t just get shipped out of Afghanistan like the billion dollars a year flying out of there now.
Although our NATO allies should and will be helping in this effort, the necessary “nation-building” isn’t going to happen unless the United States commits to funding carefully-targeted programs designed to improve governance and reduce corruption. Continued funding can be made contingent on the acceptance and participation of Afghan leaders and institutions with this anti-corruption agenda.
Lowey is right that US aid to Afghanistan should be spent wisely, and not indirectly fund warlords to provide security or corrupt officials to spread as graft. But the State Department and the military’s Joint Task Force in charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan are just beginning their work to improve local government enough to allow the U.S. military to transition out of there. Cutting off the funding that will allow that to happen would not only undermine the development of legitimate government institutions in Afghanistan, but would make the United States’ goal of eventually leaving the country that much more elusive.