President Hamid Karzai, center, and one of his vice presidents, Ahmed Zia Masoud, right, who was later accused of taking millions out of Afghanistan. Kabul, Afghanistan, July 28, 2004. (Photo credit: Ahmad Masood / Reuters via The New York Times)
By Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins
December 2, 2010
WASHINGTON — From hundreds of diplomatic cables, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier.
Describing the likely lineup of Afghanistan’s new cabinet last January, the American Embassy noted that the agriculture minister, Asif Rahimi, “appears to be the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.”
One Afghan official helpfully explained to diplomats the “four stages” at which his colleagues skimmed money from American development projects: “When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.” …
It is hardly news that predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society. Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.
But the collection of confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of publications, offers a fresh sense of its pervasive nature, its overwhelming scale, and the dispiriting challenge it poses to American officials who have made shoring up support for the Afghan government a cornerstone of America’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
The cables make it clear that American officials see the problem as beginning at the top. An August 2009 report from Kabul complains that President Hamid Karzai and his attorney general “allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.” The embassy was particularly concerned that Mr. Karzai pardoned five border police officers caught with 124 kilograms (about 273 pounds) of heroin and intervened in a drug case involving the son of a wealthy supporter.
The American dilemma is perhaps best summed up in an October 2009 cable sent by Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, written after he met with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, the most powerful man in Kandahar and someone many American officials believe prospers from the drug trade.
“The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt,” Ambassador Eikenberry wrote. …
Ahmed Zia Massoud held the post of first vice president from 2004 to 2009; the brother of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he was discussed as a future president. Last year, a cable reported, Mr. Massoud was caught by customs officials carrying $52 million in unexplained cash into the United Arab Emirates.
A diplomatic cable is not a criminal indictment, of course, and in an interview Mr. Massoud denied taking any money out of Afghanistan. “It’s not true,” he said. “Fifty-two million dollars is a pile of money as big as this room.” Yet while his official salary was a few hundred dollars a month, he lives in a waterfront house on Palm Jumeirah, a luxury Dubai community that is also home to other Afghan officials. When a reporter visited the dwelling this year, a Rolls-Royce was parked out front.
The cables describe a country where everything is for sale. The Transportation Ministry collects $200 million a year in trucking fees, but only $30 million is turned over to the government, according to a 2009 account to diplomats by Wahidullah Shahrani, then the commerce minister. As a result, “individuals pay up to $250,000 for the post heading the office in Herat, for example, and end up owning beautiful mansions as well as making lucrative political donations,” said Mr. Shahrani, who also identified 14 of Afghanistan’s governors as “bad performers and/or corrupt.” …
The cables lay out allegations of bribes and profit-skimming in the organization of travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or pilgrimage; in a scheme to transfer money via cellphones; in the purchase of wheat seed; in the compilation of an official list of war criminals; and in the voting in Parliament.
Dr. Sayed Fatimie, the minister of health, told diplomats in January that members of Parliament wanted cash to confirm his appointment. “Expressing shock at the blatancy of these extortion attempts, Fatimie said MPs had offered their own votes and the votes of others they could purportedly deliver for $1,000 apiece,” a cable said. …
The widespread corruption is made possible in part by a largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient hawala money transfer network that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world.
Last year, a cable signed by Ambassador Eikenberry said that the hawala favored by the Afghan elite, New Ansari, “is facilitating bribes and other wide-scale illicit cash transfers for corrupt Afghan officials” and providing financial services to narco-traffickers through front companies in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. He asked Washington to send more investigators and wiretap analysts to assist nascent Afghan task forces that were examining New Ansari. …
Months later, when the New Ansari investigators carried out a predawn raid on the house of a top aide to President Karzai whom investigators heard soliciting a bribe on a wiretap, Mr. Karzai intervened to release the man from jail and threatened to take control of the anticorruption investigations. In November, the Afghan government dropped all charges against the aide.
The resulting standoff between Kabul and Washington forced the Obama administration to take stock of its strategy: was trying to root out corruption, at the risk of further alienating Mr. Karzai, really worth it? And with American troops set to begin leaving Afghanistan next summer, and the American public having long ago lost the appetite for nation-building, was trying to root out corruption a Sisyphean task? …
Related reports on this site
U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai hold a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, May 12, 2010 (Photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
WikiLeaks: U.S. Security Threats (Nov. 28, 2010)
Spiral of Violence in Afghanistan (Nov. 23, 2010)
Afghanistan Strategic Thinking (Sept. 25, 2010)
Colin Powell on Afghan Policy (Sept. 20, 2010)
Run on Bank in Afghanistan (Sept. 2, 2010)
Colossal Taxpayer Waste in Iraq (Aug. 29, 2010)
WikiLeaks: Grim View of War (July 26, 2010)
Concerns Grow About Afghan War (July 17, 2010)
Tough Days Ahead in Afghanistan (May 13, 2010)
Obama Rolls Dice on AfPak War (Dec. 2, 2009)
Afghanistan in ‘Downward Spiral’ (Oct 10, 2008)
Afghanistan: The 8-Year War (Oct 7, 2009)
Afghanistan “Mission Failure” (Sept. 21, 2009)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — December 2, 2009
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters after his meeting with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, left, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 6, 2009. (Photo credit: Charles Dharapak / AP)
One year ago today, I reported that President Barack Obama held an uncertain hand in his high-stakes gamble in the fight against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with weak partners in both countries, doubts about the speed of building up Afghan security forces, and allies reluctant to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the fight.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — December 2, 2008
U.S. soldiers secure the area of a car bomb after it detonated close to the police academy on Palestine Street in central Baghdad, Dec. 1, 2008, killing 15 and wounding 45. (Photo credit: Ali Yussef / AFP — Getty Images)
Two years ago today, on Dec. 2, 2008, I reported that President George W. Bush said the biggest regret of his presidency was flawed intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, adding that he was unprepared for war when he took office.
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