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AFGHANISTAN: Corruption Fight Begins, Again

KABUL, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - When the Independent Election Commission announced that Hamid Karzai would be president for another five years, local and international powers began to demand that the newly re-elected president clamp down on the corruption that had spread like a virus throughout his administration and the ministries.

International donors threatened to withdraw funds from the country unless Karzai could turn the ship of state around and sail in bribe-free waters. U.S. President Barack Obama began calling for accountability, giving his Afghan counterpart a six-month deadline to get hold of the dishonest elements of Afghan government.

Other NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) coalition members were similarly blunt. In a congratulatory call to Karzai after his victory in last summer’s election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made clear that her country was also growing impatient with the nature of afghan government.

Other Europeans were decidedly blunter. One European diplomat told The New York Times that many in the international community wanted to see “some heads on a platter,” delivered by Karzai.

Even Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, has put pressure on Karzai to rein in graft.

Track Record

On Dec. 7, 2004, Hamid Karzai took the oath of office to be Afghanistan's first president. At that time, he had a lot on his plate; trying to coordinate the global presence in Afghanistan, dealing with narcotics cultivation and trafficking, revitalising an economy mired in desperate poverty, rebuilding infrastructure and enforcing the rule of law. But corruption was there too, and even at that time many were calling for a more transparent approach to government.

In June 2006, the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) made clear that they would not support a corrupt regime in Kabul and that the international community could not be expected to make a significant investment in a country whose leaders were more worried about lining their pockets than helping their people. On the heels of this announcement, in March 2006, Transparent Outlook Afghanistan, an NGO, released a report stating that in more than 10 provinces Afghan families were paying more than 100 dollars each in annual bribes to local government and security officials.

Karzai took hesitant steps toward fixing the problem, but never really got down to seriously tackling the malaise. In September 2006, Karzai launched Afghanistan's first commission to fight administrative corruption, chaired by a chief justice of the Supreme Court. At the time, Kari Rahimi told reporters that the commission would develop strategies to end corruption. He also said that the commission would have the power to bring corrupt officials to justice.

Around this time, then Afghan Attorney General Jabar Sabet declared "jihad on corruption." In 2006, he accused a number of high ranking officials of embezzlement, including the mayor of Herat, Mohammad Rafiq Mojjadadi and Mazar-e-Sharif mayor Younos Moqim.

While Sabet was initially enthusiastic about his campaign against crooked governance, he later admitted that the effort was less than successful. In June 2006, Sabet said that he faced powerful, armed men who prevented full judicial prosecution. In addition, he had wanted to fine dishonest property owners in Shirpoor, but again he was unsuccessful. Some experts believe that in fact, Sabet received property from those same landlords in exchange for him ceasing his investigations.

Ezatullah Wasefu, head of an independent anti-corruption group says that Sabet was actually involved in corruption during 2007. He says that Sabet used his relationships with the people he was supposed to be pursuing, for personal gain. "Each of us must judge for ourselves," Wasefu says. "But I have enough evidence against the former attorney general."

Karzai has played along so far, giving press conferences where he has stated his desire and intention to clean up Afghan governance. So has his Attorney General, Is’haq Alako. He has said that the level of corruption has reached such a level, that the Afghan government’s reputation has been nearly irreparably damaged.

Alako announced that a few former ministers in Karzai’s government would soon face trial in a special court for crimes such as corruption and embezzlement. The attorney general said that the constitution calls for “a special and exclusive court for ministers and cabinet members.” “There is some evidence against some mayors, deputies, and ministers, who were and are part of the Afghan government and they will stand trial.”

Alako named two former ministers of transportation and the former chair of Ariana Afghan Airlines, Nader Atash as people with connections to the highest levels of government who would face prosecution for misappropriation of public monies. The two ministers were Hamidullah Qadari and Enayatullah Qasemi.

Qadari was sacked in November 2008 for using his ministry to run a scam on the 30,000 Afghans selected to go to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the hajj last year.

The pilgrims, selected by lottery, were charged around 3,000 dollars a piece by Qadari’s ministry in order to make the journey. But when they got to Mecca, delays abounded and the government hadn’t reserved the proper facilities. Unfortunately, the prosecution of Qadari and Qasemi may take some time, as they are both out of the country and currently being pursued by international police.

In addition to these named suspects, Attorney General Alako has said that there are a number of other government officials who are under suspicion for various fraud and corruption. His office declined to name these men, citing to constitutional law. He did reveal that five of the suspects were sitting governors and three are former ministers.

He said the charges include embezzlement, bribery and misuse of power. Astonishingly, murder is also one of the charges, according to Afghanistan’s top legal authority. “There is enough evidence,” Alako said recently. “As soon as we establish these special courts, we will begin prosecuting the cases.”

Recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta held a joint press conference with his Swedish counterpart announcing that President Karzai is in fact serious about fighting corruption in his government.

But some observers say that if Karzai bows to pressure from those who helped get him elected, the fight is already lost.

Noorullah Khpewak, a Kabul political analyst, says that if Karzai can choose a cabinet based on the most honest and well qualified applicants, it will be possible to begin rooting out government corruption. “But,” Khpewak says, “if President Karzai appoints his key cabinet members under pressure from his supporters, he will not be able to defeat corruption.”

Khpewak believes that those who supported Karzai through the long hot months of the summer campaign will expect some kind of reward for their efforts. “They want to share power,” he says. “But they will not help reduce corruption.”

But there are some who believe that Karzai will have more success rooting out corruption than in previous years.

Sayed Jawad Husseini, head of the Afghan Youth Party, believes that the incoming administration will be able to get a hold on corruption.

* This is published under an agreement with the Killid Group, an independent Afghan media group. IPS and Killid are partners since 2004.

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