Washington - Just how corrupt is the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan? It should be clear by now that President Hamid Karzai doesn't want us to know. He'd prefer that we just keep sending our troops and our dollars, and not ask too many questions.
Karzai's government announced this week that American and allied advisers, dispatched to Kabul to help investigate massive and endemic graft, will no longer be allowed to do any actual investigating. Karzai's chief of staff told The Washington Post that the government is still determined to eliminate corruption, but intends to do so "within an Afghan framework."
And what a framework it is. Karzai is evidently upset that foreign advisers helped build a case against one of his high-ranking aides, Mohammad Zia Salehi, who is charged with soliciting a bribe -- $10,000 plus a new car -- from a money-exchange firm. In return, according to the charges, Salehi was supposed to derail an investigation into allegations that the company, called New Ansari, had illegally shipped $3 billion in cash out of the country. Most of the funds ended up in Dubai, where many of the wealthy Afghan elite have settled.
Salehi was arrested, but Karzai intervened to have him released from jail just seven hours later. Karzai has said that the use of wiretaps to build the case against Salehi was a violation of "human rights principles." I wonder what other standard investigative techniques don't fit within the "Afghan framework."
A serious, sustained probe of high-level Afghan corruption might hit even closer to home for Karzai and his family. His brother, Mahmoud Karzai, is one of the biggest shareholders in Kabul Bank, the nation's largest financial institution, which almost collapsed this week amid allegations that it was essentially being looted by politically connected insiders. Mahmoud Karzai lives in what the Financial Times describes as a "beachside villa" in Dubai.
President Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is the most powerful political figure in the Kandahar region -- and also, according to persistent allegations, a major player in Afghanistan's illegal drug trade. He denies any involvement in the opium business, and Hamid Karzai vouches for him, so that's that. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was in Washington this week to consult with President Obama, told The Washington Post that he has repeatedly urged Afghan officials to crack down on corruption. "All these stories about irregularities and corruption are damaging for public support for our presence in Afghanistan," he said, displaying his mastery of understatement.
At this point, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying to prop up a government willing to tolerate -- and, allegedly, eager to profit from -- corruption on an epic scale, including vast commerce in illegal drugs. It's also hard not to conclude that billions of dollars sent to Afghanistan by U.S. taxpayers -- intended for worthy projects such as roads and schools -- have been stolen by wealthy, well-connected power brokers who spend much of their time luxuriating on the beaches of Dubai.
I'm not naive. Anyone familiar with the history of American foreign policy knows that this isn't the first time the United States has lavished guns and butter on a corrupt regime. We did it all the time when policymakers believed we needed allies, however unsavory, who would serve as bulwarks against communism. But the way we supported, say, the old Duvalier kleptocracy in Haiti is different from what we're doing in Afghanistan, where our generosity is not just in dollars but in young American lives. This is more like our embrace of the corrupt government in South Vietnam -- and we all know how that turned out.
The Afghan government will never be able to win the nation's allegiance if officials are seen, with justification, as being more intent on stealing than leading. U.S. and allied officials say that Karzai understands how important it is to end the corruption. The Afghan president's actions, however, suggest otherwise.
As for Rasmussen's warning, he's a little late; public opinion has already turned against the war. But now that we understand how things work, we could make our Afghanistan mission vastly more efficient: Bring the troops home and just send duffel bags full of cash to Kabul, Kandahar and Dubai.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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