Cables: Bribery, Graft Rampant in Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 23, 2010. AP

U.S. diplomatic cables revealed Friday portray Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.

Details from a vast tranche of cables released by the WikiLeaks website could further erode support for the nine-year war. After applying heavy public pressure on President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption, U.S. and NATO officials have switched to nudging him quietly so as not to undermine the very government the international community is trying to strengthen as an alternative to the Taliban.

The leaked cables also could bolster the concerns of U.S. lawmakers who have threatened to hold back aid until they are convinced the money will not end up lining the pockets of the political elite.

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The corruption is portrayed as coming directly from the top. An August 2009 report from Kabul says Karzai and his attorney general "allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court."

Some of the graft is believed to go on to benefit insurgent networks, according to the files. A Dec. 27, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Paktia provincial governor Jume Khan Hamdard has been accused of arresting contractors at job sites and holding them until they pay bribes. According to the communique, Hamdard also funnels money from bribes and drug and jewel smuggling operations to an insurgent network.

"Evidence collected in the case points to corruption involving U.S. funds and actively undermining the Afghan government's counterinsurgency policy," the cable said.

Karzai appears in the cables as mercurial and changeable. In early February during a meeting with a U.S. Embassy official, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, said Karzai is deceiving all sides.

"When he sits with me, he tells me he wants the foreign troops to leave, then he tells you he wants them to stay forever, and he tells yet a third story to Islamic leaders of other countries," Zaeef said.

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A June 2008 cable wonders "which Karzai would show up for the (2009) Afghan donors conference in Paris - the erratic Pashtun politician or the rational national leader."

Much of the graft described in the cables is facilitated by Afghanistan's largest hawala money-transfer system, New Ansari. Hawalas, which flourish in the Islamic world, are difficult to track and regulate.

"Afghanistan's New Ansari hawala network is facilitating bribes and other wide-scale illicit cash transfers for corrupt Afghan officials and is providing illicit financial services for narco-traffickers, insurgents, and criminals through an array of front companies in Afghanistan and the UAE," according to an Oct. 18, 2009, cable signed by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

The flow of money in and out of the country also was revealed to be a serious concern for the U.S.

An Oct. 19, 2009, cable says that more than $190 million left Kabul for Dubai through Kabul International Airport during the previous 90 days, but actual amounts could be much larger.

"An official claiming firsthand knowledge recently told the U.S. Treasury attache some $75 million transited through the airport bound for Dubai in one day during the month of July," before the last presidential election, the cable said.

The cable said the United Arab Emirates revealed that it had stopped former Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood entering the country with $52 million earlier in 2009. He was allowed to keep most of the money "without revealing the money's origin or destination," according to the document.

The document notes that the former chairman of the troubled Kabul Bank owns multiple properties in Dubai.

"Many other notable private individuals and public officials maintain assets (primarily property) outside Afghanistan, suggesting these individuals are extracting as much wealth as possible while conditions permit," the document said.

The cable said Afghan Central Bank Governor Abdul Qadir Fitrat, however, noted that about $600 million had left Afghanistan's banking system, although not necessarily the country, before the elections because of uncertainty over the outcome of the ballot. He stressed that there were no indications of significant capital flight.

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said last summer that about $4.2 billion in cash had been transferred through the airport during the past three and one half years. He said that while it was not illegal to transfer cash out of Afghanistan, officials were concerned about the amount being transferred.

In an Oct. 3, 2009, cable, Eikenberry describes up the U.S. predicament after meeting Ahmad Wali Karzi, the president's half brother who has faced widespread allegations of involvement in racketeering, drug-trafficking and assassinations of rivals. The younger Karzai denies those allegations.

"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," Eikenberry writes.

The cables also show Iranian influence in Afghanistan, including political meddling and training insurgents. On Feb. 2, Karzai's chief of staff, Umar Daudzai, told U.S. Embassy officials that the Iranians "no longer even bother to deny their support for the Taliban," and that on occasion, young Afghan men cross into Iran where they are recruited and trained to return and fight.
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