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POLITICS: Corruption in Afghanistan Cuts Both Ways


KABUL, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - Unfortunately for both Afghans and Americans, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama, his counterpart in Washington, missed a chance to reset the critical relationship between their two countries and move the dialogue in an honest direction.

Hours after Karzai was declared the winner in the long-drawn presidential elections, Obama made a congratulatory call and also a request that the Afghan president move boldly to fight the corruption and drug trade that is holding Afghanistan back, fueling the insurgency and leaving the U.S. and its European allies with a weakened partner.

Specifically, the Obama Administration and European capitals are looking for Karzai to establish an anti-corruption commission. They also want Karzai to remove a number of high profile individuals from positions of power.

One of these is Karzai’s vice presidential running mate, Mohamad Qasim Fahim, a suspected drug trafficker. Another is General Rashid Dostum who has been accused by various independent human rights organizations in the killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners. Even Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has come under western criticism for his suspected role in Afghanistan’s drug trade.

At a press conference after the Obama call, Karzai said that instead of removing individuals from positions of power, a review and change of Afghan law is in order – maintaining status quo.

Expectations Ahead

Two and-a-half months after Afghans cast their ballots, the country finally has a president. Hamid Karzai will continue to lead Afghanistan for the next five years.

Since the campaign began last summer, the economy has suffered tremendously, with foreign investment in Afghanistan falling off a cliff and an already sluggish local investment scene becoming even more moribund.

Politically, the campaign, election and fractious post-election period, led to infighting among government elites and pitted provincial governors who may have supported different candidates against one another. The Afghan parliament also became fractured as opposing loyalist used legislative issues as proxy wars. Most Afghans welcome the chance to put this drawn-out election process behind them.

"Declaring a winner (on Nov. 2) has ended our worries and concerns about who will lead the government," says Rohullah Noori, a Kabul resident. "But now we have many expectations of this government, especially with regard to security."

Mohammad Nazir, who also lives in Kabul, says that though his candidate didn't win, he is glad that winner has been declared so the nation may move forward.

"I participated in the first round of elections (Aug. 20)," Nazir says, "and I cast my ballot for my candidate. Though he didn't win, I obeyed Afghan law and would have participated in a runoff. Since Hamid Karzai was declared the winner I continue to follow the law and warmly welcome this decision."

Roubina Safdari, a high school teacher, has high expectations for Karzai's new government. She wants an increase in women's rights, having had enough of the prejudice that has plagued Afghan society for far too long. By Hashim Qiam/Killid

Indeed, there’s a lot that’s wrong in Afghanistan and in the way its president has lead the country since 2002. But the United States, its NATO allies and respective donor agencies have also contributed significantly to the corruption and human rights abuses here.

To now condemn Karzai for having individuals such as his brother and Dostum in positions of power, when the U.S. and its partners empowered these people in their fight against al Qaida and the Taliban is highly disingenuous.

Why should Karzai – let alone the Afghan people – take Obama’s request for an anti-corruption commission seriously when the United States and its partners have mismanaged and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on over priced, ill-planned reconstruction projects?

And speaking of commissions, the coalition has yet to establish an official commission to review their near trillion dollar war, to say nothing of mismanaged, corruption riddled development projects since that war began.

In the few days since the confirmation of his second term, President Karzai has also missed an opportunity to foster an honest and fresh direction for his people and their global partners, many of whom it must be noted, are sacrificing their lives on Afghan soil everyday.

Now the challenge is for both Obama, Karzai and the international community to get beyond the rhetoric and easy headlines and demand honesty of themselves and from each other.

President Karzai, however awkwardly, has been given a mandate to lead Afghanistan for a second term. At this moment, neither he – nor those he leads – have the power to demand greater accountability from their international partners. But Karzai does have the power to demand greater accountability of himself and his people.

There are a number of steps President Karzai can take in the precious days and weeks ahead to prove, first and foremost to the Afghan nation and second to the insurgent leaders holding the nation hostage, that he is not acting on the pressure of foreigners to change but rather from his own desire and consciousness for a more just, decent and dignified nation.

This will mean having the courage to enact a series of bold measures, starting with the establishment of a truth commission to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, even those who have received immunity by the Afghan Parliament. This should include official recognition for the victims of these crimes.

High profile drug traffickers should also be captured and prosecuted and as part of this initiative, alternative livelihood programs should be launched, to give poppy farmers a sustainable solution to the country’s drug economy.

In order to advance the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban groups, President Karzai should immediately work with the Afghan Parliament to support a national referendum which calls on both the insurgents to stop targeting civilian populations and for the NATO and American forces to end their military campaigns in Afghanistan. It is these campaigns which are fueling the insurgency not the other way around.

The U.S. and NATO in turn must take a long, hard look in the mirror. If they do, they will see that they in fact created much of the mess they are now demanding that Karzai clean up. The same anti-corruption commission which they demand of Karzai, they should also be demanding of themselves. This will send a strong signal to their constituents and the Afghan people that they are genuine about getting it right in Afghanistan.

Both Obama and Karzai have huge decisions to make in the coming weeks. Will the American president send more American troops into harm’s way and escalate this war? Will Karzai aggressively challenge corruption, even if it means the removal and prosecution of powerful figures?

The answer to both questions can no longer come from specialists and advisors but by the hearts which lead both men. By looking inward, these leaders will see that not only is corruption a two way street but so is the achievement of peace. Neither leader can succeed on his own terms.

* Melek Zimmer-Zahine is a founding member of The Killid Group. IPS and Killid, an independent Afghan media group, are partners since 2004.

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