KABUL – Afghan officials launched a new anti-corruption unit and major crime fighting force Monday amid stiff international pressure to clean up the government following a fraud-tainted presidential election.
The Afghan government has been dogged by corruption for years and this is the third formal launch of a unit promising to rein in rampant graft and bribery. But Afghan government officials told reporters this attempt has a better chance because of a real desire to succeed and strong international backing.
It has also been accompanied this time by international threats.
Both American and British officials have said they will consider the Afghan government's commitment to reform in deciding how many more troops to send to fight the resurgent Taliban. And on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. will not provide any civilian aid to Afghanistan without a way to hold ministries accountable for how funds are used.
On Monday, the British and U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan praised the latest corruption effort, standing alongside Afghan ministers to show their support.
A host of Afghan officials who attended the press conference said this time they are committed to wiping out fraud because they have seen what graft and cronyism has done to their country.
"Corruption is the cancer that is destroying the lives of the people," said Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish. He said it is affecting the nation's economy, politics and security.
However, the rhetoric was reminiscent of previous efforts, and the new unit came only after President Hamid Karzai bristled at earlier attempts by the United Nations to set forth a series of goals to banish corruption.
American and British officials have been particularly vocal in recent weeks in calling for Karzai to institute reforms following the messy election that took two and half months to resolve and undermined the legitimacy of a government the West is supporting with billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops.
A March report by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that corruption had reached "an unprecedented scope in the country's history."
Law enforcement agencies from Britain and the United States, along with Interpol, helped set up the new unit, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said.
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry both praised the plan and called for follow-through.
"It requires action. Words are cheap. Deeds are required," he told reporters.
Much of the development money from foreign donors is funneled through Afghan ministries in an attempt to strengthen the government, but donors regularly complain they lose control of funds once they go into a ministry and often have no way or right to track their use.
The country's first anti-corruption body was disbanded after it emerged its head had been previously convicted and imprisoned on drug charges in the United States. A new anti-corruption office was launched last summer with a media blitz, promises of high-level trials and the firing of dozens of judges.
More than a year later, Afghans continue to list government corruption as one of their biggest problems, and officials said the judicial graft the 2008 commission targeted remains one of the key problems the new body will have to tackle.
Still, the U.S. ambassador said that the older anti-corruption task force has probably been the most effective law enforcement institution in the chaotic, war-ravaged country.
He called on Afghans to join in the battle for clean government.
"Fighting corruption is primarily a matter of willpower and of integrity. It requires that Afghans in positions of responsibility, and indeed all Afghans, say that they will not tolerate this cancer in their society any longer," Eikenberry said.
Transparency International, a non-governmental organization, last year ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries on its corruption perceptions index, a poll that assesses the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. Only Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia were worse.