Afghan president considering new oversight of US-backed units probing corruption

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. officials see the recent arrest of a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai as a test case of his willingness to fight graft and bribery and are waiting to see if he will impose restraints on corruption probes of high-ranking officials.

The possibility that Karzai will place restrictions on the operations of two anti-corruption units set up with help from U.S. law enforcement officials heightens already growing tension between the United States and the Afghan government, which is seeking more control over the billions of foreign dollars being poured in to foster reconstruction.

The concern comes as a new report issued in Washington questioned the Afghan administration's ability to fight graft and bribery, which are undermining the war against the Taliban, and whether the U.S. has directed enough aid to Afghanistan's new anti-corruption units.

A senior U.S. administration official said Friday that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Karzai by phone this week about a range of subjects, including the corruption matter. Clinton set down a "marker," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. Clinton made it clear that the U.S. sees the arrest of the top adviser, in particular, as an important "test case" of Karzai's stated commitment to root out corruption in government, the official said.

Corruption and a weak court system have undermined public trust in Karzai's government and its efforts to win the loyalty of many Afghans away from the Taliban.

Soon after Mohammad Zia Salehi was arrested last week for allegedly taking a bribe, the Afghan president sought more oversight of the work of the two U.S.-backed anti-corruption units, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation helps train employees of the two units who conduct corruption probes of high-level Afghan government officials and then feed cases to Afghan prosecutors.

Salehi, head of administration for the Afghan National Security Council, is accused of accepting a car in exchange for his help in exerting pressure on Afghan officials to ease off in another corruption case, said Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, first deputy attorney general. He said the attorney general's office has wiretaps of Salehi discussing the vehicle.

Karzai gathered his top law enforcement and justice officials at the presidential palace Wednesday to hear from a panel he asked to monitor the work of the two units that made the arrest. A statement released by Karzai's office said that work done by the U.S.-based anti-corruption units, including the Major Crimes Task Force, should follow Afghan law and respect Afghan values and the national sovereignty of the nation.

"All the cases, which are being investigated and those cases that have been completed, should be reviewed by the delegation and the outcome of its assessment should be reported to Karzai's office," the statement said. "All the activities — arresting, investigation, questioning and detention — should be based on the principles and laws of the country and respect human rights."

That sparked concern among U.S. officials that Karzai was attempting to derail corruption probes of top officials in his government.

The president's office did not elaborate and little more detail about what Karzai might be planning was revealed at a news briefing Thursday by Afghan Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Alako; Mohammad Yasin Usmani, director of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, the office Karzai set up months ago to battle corruption; and others that Karzai asked to look into the issue.

They told reporters that the arrest of Salehi had nothing to do with Karzai's review of the units' work. "It was a coincidence," Usmani said.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington viewed the arrest of Salehi and other ongoing investigations as evidence that the Afghan government was following through on pledges to fight corruption. Crowley said the U.S. did not see Karzai's intervention as problematic at this point, but that the U.S. was closely monitoring developments in the Salehi case as well as Karzai's decision to review the anti-corruption work being done by the investigative units.

Since 2002, the U.S. has appropriated more than $50 billion for reconstruction. The Obama administration has requested $20 billion more to help the Afghan government bolster the nation's security forces and improve governance.

The U.S. has agreed to channel more money through the Afghan government in coming years, but this is hinged on the government's ability to prevent waste, abuse, fraud and other forms of corruption.

"Fighting corruption continues to be a challenge," retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a report released Thursday in Washington. "Afghan institutions must begin to play a more active role in fighting corruption and should be active participants in investigating corruption issues, but the Afghan institutions need to be strengthened to do this."

The 30-page report said corruption has tarnished the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The perception among Afghans and the international community that corruption lurks in the ranks of government officials is affecting the war strategy.

Tens of thousands of U.S. reinforcements are still streaming into the country to try to reverse the Taliban's momentum and give the government space to win the loyalty of citizens and expand its influence deeper into the countryside.

"The U.S. had made strengthening the Afghan government's capability to combat corruption a priority," the report said. "However, the majority of U.S. reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan has been provided without the benefit of an approved comprehensive U.S. anti-corruption strategy."

The report also said that while the Afghan government has established a number of anti-corruption institutions, "they lack independence, audit authority and capacity." According to the report, U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan have provided relatively little assistance to some key Afghan oversight institutions.

Afghan government officials have pointed some blame at the international community for the corruption by criticizing the way foreign nations award contracts, which sometimes end up in the hands of politicians and powerbrokers.