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U.S. debates Karzai's role in corruption fight

By Mark Mazzetti and Rod Nordland

New York Times


WASHINGTON » The Obama administration is debating whether to make Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, a more central player in efforts to root out corruption in his own government, including giving him more oversight of graft investigators and notifying him before any arrests, according to senior U.S. officials.

Such a change would represent a significant shift in strategy for an administration that once pinned much of the blame for Afghan corruption on Karzai but now is worried that escalating tensions between Kabul and Washington could alienate Karzai and sabotage the broader campaign to battle the Taliban.

Some administration officials, though, are concerned that such a move could undermine efforts to hold officials in Kabul accountable for a web of corruption inside the Afghan government, efforts Karzai thwarted in recent weeks by intervening to have a top aide released from jail.

In Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials said that new corruption prosecutions had ground to a halt as a result of a dispute within the government over the limits of U.S.-backed anticorruption teams that have pursued Afghan officials. A Western diplomat said Tuesday that the work of Justice Department advisers assigned to the corruption cases had "paused."

The corruption issue was at the center of a two-hour White House meeting Monday, with President Barack Obama and senior aides agreeing that efforts to tackle corruption should be balanced against the need to maintain ties with the Afghan government.

"The discussion on corruption, in essence, is really a discussion about our relationship with Karzai," said one senior Obama administration official, who like several others interviewed for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Officials cautioned that no firm decisions had been made about whether Karzai should have any veto power over anticorruption efforts. They said that Obama told his advisers Monday to come up with a more "sophisticated" policy toward Afghan corruption.

Obama, the officials said, directed government agencies -- including the Pentagon, State Department, Justice Department and CIA -- to develop guidelines that could isolate the corruption that fuels anger among Afghans and drives many into the ranks of the insurgency, as opposed to the more routine kickbacks and bribes that grease the Afghan political system.

"The corruption we need to combat is the corruption that undermines the fight against the Taliban," said a second U.S. official. "That means going after officials who abuse ordinary Afghans and drive them to the other side -- a plundering landlord or a brutal, thieving cop."

Such distinctions could be difficult to draw. Moreover, there is widespread suspicion in Afghanistan that Karzai's inner circle and some of his family members have enriched themselves through land grabs and sweetheart business deals, including the self-dealing that led to the recent crisis at Kabul Bank.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials said that shifting tactics to focus anticorruption efforts on practices that benefit the Taliban could help build good will with the Karzai government and could decrease suspicion inside the presidential palace.

On Monday, Obama's advisers also discussed the U.S. role in fueling Afghan corruption, specifically the billions of dollars in government money that flows into Afghanistan each year for government contracts. Military officials believe that some of the money is redirected to the insurgency by warlords and established power brokers, and Sunday Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued new guidelines to regulate the flow of U.S. money.

In an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, Petraeus praised Karzai's efforts to fight corruption and said a U.S. anticorruption campaign should not "be seen to threaten the sovereignty of the Afghan government."

Tensions between Karzai and the Obama administration boiled over this summer after two anticorruption task forces wiretapped conversations of one of Karzai's aides discussing acceptance of a bribe and threw him in jail. Karzai later intervened to have the official, Mohammed Zia Salehi, released.

According to one senior Afghan official, the work of the two units has stalled and there has been no movement on at least three other cases that have been referred to the Afghan attorney general's office for prosecution.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, the attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, denied that his office was dragging its feet on prosecuting corruption and said that no new cases had been brought to his office.

"That is just rumors and baseless stories," he said.

Aloko did confirm, however, that he had canceled salary bonuses that had been given to anticorruption prosecutors. Called "top-up raises," they had been paid by the U.S. government to keep qualified people and insulate them from corruption and political interference.

"I canceled the pay raises from the Americans," he said. "I told them not to pay them any more. We don't want foreigners' money; we want to pay from our own budget."

Afghanistan's top anticorruption investigators have been trained by Western law enforcement officials, mostly from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, and are largely financed by the United States and other countries. But U.S. officials insist that the units are under Afghan control and that the Americans act only as advisers.

The two anticorruption units have won high praise from U.S. law enforcement officials for their success in building cases. In the past year, their investigations have resulted in the detention of more than 50 people on corruption and drug trafficking charges, 10 of them high-ranking officials.

Karzai said he had issued a decree detailing the limits governing the authorities of those units, but so far that decree has not been officially published or made into law.

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