U.S. officials fear Karzai can't keep anti-corruption pledge

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai vowed Tuesday that he'd clean up his government in his second five-year term, but U.S. officials are worried that the Afghan leader will have to award key posts to ethnic warlords and regional power barons who're linked to drug trafficking in exchange for their help in his re-election.

The U.S. concerns were heightened by the return from Turkey late Monday of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former communist general and a leader of the ethnic Uzbek minority who's alleged to have allowed the 2001 killing of as many as 2,000 Taliban and al Qaida prisoners, then having their mass graves dug up and their remains hidden in 2008.

Dostum, who left for Turkey a year ago after allegedly beating a political rival and his family, last visited Kabul four days before the Aug. 20 first round of the presidential election as part of an alleged deal to deliver the votes of his large following to Karzai. Dostum, however, quickly left again for Turkey after the U.S. complained.

U.S. officials were concerned that Dostum's return late Monday — the same day that President Barack Obama pressed Karzai in a telephone call congratulating him on his re-election to crack down on high-level corruption — was a prelude to his appointment to the Afghan leader's new cabinet.

"Dostum came back to cash in" said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

Karzai, however, insisted in his first news conference since he was certified on Monday as the winner of the election, that he'd move forcefully to eliminate corruption in his new administration. "We have been tarnished with corruption, and we will continue to make every possible effort to wipe off this stain," Karzai said.

The Obama administration has identified corruption in the Karzai administration as a key problem undermining the eight-year-old war effort against the Taliban. Karzai has had uneasy relations with the administration, however, particularly as the Afghan president's campaign was accused of widespread voter fraud.

Many U.S. officials, Western diplomats and other experts fear that Karzai will have to award positions in the central and provincial governments to unsavory figures, including regional militia leaders and power brokers who oversaw the massive ballot box-stuffing on his behalf, in return for backing his re-election.

"I think the corruption and the failures in the system and the government cannot only be fixed through removal," Karzai said Tuesday. "There are rules, and there are regulations, and there are laws that need to be reformed."

One of the most controversial members of Karzai's new government, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, stood next to the president at the news conference. Fahim, the first vice president-elect, has been accused of war crimes and dogged by allegations that he's tied to the drug trade.

Karzai "is too beholden to these types and he doesn't see it yet in his interest to remove them and start a clean government and be a genuine partner with the international community," said Rachel Reid, who monitors Afghanistan for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

"The next few days, weeks and months are almost more important than the election itself as we see who Karzai appoints to his new government," she said. "This will send the signal of whether we see a new kind of governing, a more credible form of governing, or whether Afghanistan will continue to spiral into further corruption and insecurity."

"It's not enough to blame Karzai," Reid continued. "The U.S. and other major players in Afghanistan are complicit in this impunity culture. They have relationships with many of the most notorious former warlords, current criminals and militia leaders. They have high-level meetings with them, they use their armed gangs to guard their bases, they invite them to the White House. They, too, must clean up their act, or they don't have a leg to stand on when they come to tell Karzai to change his allegiances."

Other figures of concern who provided critical support for Karzai's re-election include former Helmand province governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, who was found with nine tons of drugs in 2005; Assadullah Khalid, a former governor of Kandahar province; and parliamentarian Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former anti-Soviet guerrilla leader and hard-line Islamist linked to Osama bin Laden who's accused of war crimes and land theft.

Karzai also received considerable help from his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the main power in Kandahar, who's allegedly involved in drug trafficking and other abuses, but also reportedly receives payments from the CIA. He denies the allegations.

The U.S. defense official said there are concerns that Karzai may find himself in deep political trouble because he may be unable to keep all of the power-sharing promises he made to unsavory figures in return for votes.

"He can't deliver all the jobs he promised," the U.S. defense official said.

Karzai claimed a new term after his challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of a runoff election this Saturday over concerns that voter fraud also would mar the second round.

Karzai has never admitted that his campaign was involved in fraudulent activities during the first round Aug. 20, and he referred to those allegations again Tuesday as "defamation and disrespect."

He said he wanted to form "a government of unity, a government for all Afghan people, but he gave no specifics as to whom he might include or whether he'd back any of the reforms that Abdullah sought, such as electing, rather than appointing, provincial governors.

Karzai also said he'd reach out to the Taliban and try to get them to renounce violence, but again he offered no specifics on how that might be done.

The Taliban have sought this week to generate a propaganda victory from the decision to scuttle the runoff and declare Karzai the victory.

"The cancellation of the runoff election shows that all decisions are made in Washington and London but announced in Afghanistan," said a statement released by the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Landay reported from Washington.)

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