Sen. Kerry presses Karzai on corruption

By Dion Nissenbaum
McClatchy Newspapers

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., arrived in Kabul on Tuesday for another tough diplomatic mission to smooth over newly strained relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration.

Ten months after he played a pivotal role in persuading Karzai to agree to a runoff after a corruption-plagued presidential vote, Kerry returned to the Afghan capital with a firm new message: Karzai must allow the country’s new anti-corruption departments to do their job.

“President Karzai and his government need to understand that there is no patience for endless support for something that doesn’t meet higher standards with respect to governance,” Kerry told a small group of reporters between meetings with the Afghan leader.

Kerry is seeking assurances from Karzai that he’ll allow the anti-corruption groups to make headway on one of the more thorny issues the two countries face.

“I think that (in) the next days, the government of Afghanistan’s response to anti-corruption efforts are a key test of its ability to regain the confidence of the people and provide the kind of governance that the American people are prepared to support,” Kerry said.

His visit came on the heels of an hourlong phone call that President Barack Obama made to Karzai last week that included a discussion of their disagreement over the American-backed anti-corruption investigators.

Earlier this month, Karzai announced plans to impose more oversight on the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit after the groups orchestrated the arrest of a well-placed Karzai government leader.

Karzai aide Mohammed Zia Saleh, the top administrator at the country’s National Security Council, was arrested late last month in a sting operation. Saleh is suspected of soliciting a bribe from an Afghan company that’s being investigated for shipping billions of dollars in cash out of Afghanistan.

The FBI and British investigators have provided essential backing for the two groups, which are designed to tackle corruption in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

With the U.S.-backed investigators drawing closer to Karzai’s inner circle, the Afghan president announced plans to revise regulations for the anti-corruption organizations.

Karzai accused the investigators of using rough tactics on suspects, and he vowed to bring the groups into line.
The president’s response raised concerns in the Obama administration, however, that Karzai was trying to quash legitimate investigations and protect his allies.

Were Karzai to neuter the investigators, it almost would certainly undermine support for him in Washington, where billions of dollars in U.S. aid for Afghanistan already have been put on hold because of concerns about high-level corruption.

“This test is an important one for him and the government, and he knows that there are people on both sides of the aisle in Congress who are anxious about what’s happening here,” said Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.