President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is getting on everyone's nerves in the US and Afghanistan over the endemic corruption in his government. Despite promising a tougher anti-corruption fight, Mr Karzai continues to protect officials from his inner circle and his family members by helping them hold on to ill-gotten wealth and transfer hundreds of millions of dollars every month outside the country.
The tension between Kabul and Washington rose to the surface on August 5 when the US-backed Major Crime Task Force in Kabul--assigned to fight high profile crimes and corruption--arrested Zia Saleh, the head of administration for the Afghan National Security Council and took him for questioning. But following a phone call to Mr Karzai, Saleh was a free man seven hours later. He was accused of taking bribes in exchange for shutting down the investigation of a corrupt financial firm, New Ansari, in Kabul. The issue has become complicated when on August 25 The New York Times revealed that Saleh has been on the CIA's payroll for many years.
This major finance firm also helped high-ranking Afghan officials and drug lords transfer millions of dollars out of the country. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal on August 12, the firm helped to launder profits from the opium trade, transferred, so far $2.5 billion illicit funds outside the country and even moved a large sum of money to the Taliban through its office in Kandahar.
The New Ansari also owns the United Afghan Bank, the third largest in the country. The Task Force for Major Crimes and Sensitive Investigations Unit were set up late last year with the help of the FBI, Britain's Scotland Yard and EUPOL -the European Union's Police training mission- as part of Obama's strategy for eliminating corruption within the Kabul government. The task force and the unit began to use wiretap technology to gather evidence against corrupt officials.
Hitting at the heart of the Karzai government, the new anti-corruption task force soon turned into a thorn in his government's side. In a recent statement, Karzai said that the task force was "violating human rights principles," by spying on high-ranking officials. To prevent further revelations about the corruption and cronyism in his government, Karzai established a new commission to control all operations by these independent and international institutions.
However, after meeting Senator John Kerry in Kabul twice, Karzai agreed to allow the two Western-backed anti-corruption units to pursue investigations independently on August 20. Making promises is Karzai's usual showcase. In the London and Kabul Conferences this year, he vowed to eliminate corruption and the culture of impunity from his government. The Draft Communiqué for the London conference states, "all new top level appointments will be subject to the new procedures, including the head of the High Office of Oversight, setting up a panel of international independent experts to monitor the government's anti-corruption efforts." Corruption was born with Karzai, who began to preside over a government controlled by a gang of warlords in 2001, holding little or no sway over the Afghan people. During the past eight years, Western money in the billions has gone down the drain. His vice presidents, many of his cabinet members and odious warlords have built up staggering personal fortunes, including luxury homes in Kabul and multimillion-dollar businesses. Karzai's family members are accused of being the leading figures in narco-based crimes and corruption related to the government's security contracts. Millions in state revenues, foreign aid and drug money goes directly into their coffers.
Karzai and corrupt warlords are getting on like a house on fire. He is, in fact, heavily dependent on the support of warlords. Last year they played a crucial role in winning Karzai a fraud-marred re-election. Under Karzai's patronage, they continue to rule their fiefdom across the country with repression and corruption. The recent Kabul Bank scandal opened a new window to a criminalised financial system in the country. The assets of the bank owned by Karzai and his Vice-president Marshal Fahim's families were purloined by these two corrupt but powerful families.
Ever since the collapse of the Taliban government, endemic corruption is the biggest recruitment magnet for the insurgency and the main reason for the illegitimacy of the Karzai government. For fear of the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan, the new political class in Kabul is worried about protecting their illegal wealth. The best way of protecting their power and wealth is to prolong the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
I worked in Kabul for six months last year, but I resigned because of rampant corruption in the government. I witnessed the horrors of a government which was based entirely on bribery and corruption. I never felt the existence of any genuine institution that could hold government accountable. To understand the truth of Karzai and his government you need to read the tale of Ali Baba and Forty Thieves from The Arabian Nights.
"The police duty here in Kabul and provinces is largely stop-and-bribe. Upon entering our ministry everyone will be ripped off," an official of the Afghan interior ministry told me on the condition of anonymity.
Corruption is likely to widen the gap between Karzai and his foreign allies in time to come, for his government is increasingly revealing its mafia structure and will resist as such anything that threatens the culture of kleptomania in his regime. It is disheartening that far from being a political and technocratic team, Karzai's government represents a financial and business conglomeration. Asking Karzai's warlord-sponsored government to fight corruption is like asking mosquitoes to cure malaria.
The worst thing yet is that this gruesome regime is kept by the Western blood and treasury alive. The The CIA and Pentagon still see merit in Karzai and his cronies. The current surge policy is likely to fail largely for the lack of a reliable local partner in the country. The Western coalition in Afghanistan has not much time to get things right in this unfortunate country. A British historian described the existential fear of the nineteenth century Afghan kings who would saddle and bridle their horses loaded with bags of gold each night for a possible flight in case they are suddenly de-throned. This saying is nowhere truer than for Karzai. Leaving behind a regime led by Karzai, the US and its allies will be heading Afghanistan fast towards its worst nightmare. A changed Karzai is a pipedream. A shake up of government in Kabul to its foundations would stand the West in good stead either for winning or for an exit strategy.
Dr. Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with the Western Sydney University's Writing & Society Research Group.