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In Afghanistan, A War on Corruption Falters

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Experts now often talk about a “new front” in the Afghanistan war: one targeting the corruption that is causing the cost of the war effort to spiral. Although special efforts have been made to address the issue, there is so far little sign of success. Moreover, the latest reports raise doubts about the wisdom of those efforts themselves. Two reports in the last week are particularly noteworthy.

First, the New York Times’s Rod Nordland and Dexter Filkins examine the elite anti-corruption units set up by the American Justice Department, which have provoked the ire of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The criticisms raised by Afghans are fairly blunt: the units are described as controlled by the Americans and unaccountable to the government in Kabul, and as using harsh techniques like those used in counterterrorism. Karzai responded by appointing a commission to study them:

The commission that Mr. Karzai appointed to investigate the anticorruption agencies held a news conference on Thursday to report its findings. Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Alko and Mohammed Yassin Usmani, head of the country’s high office of oversight and anticorruption, with other officials, insisted that their investigation was only coincidental to Mr. Saleh’s arrest. They said they investigated conditions at the Qasaba Detention Center in Kabul, where the Major Crimes Task Force has 52 detainees on drug trafficking and corruption charges, and raised concerns about whether conditions there were humanitarian and Islamic. They also looked into the organizations’ investigative practices.

The commission members said they were presenting their findings to Mr. Karzai, who would review whether legislation was needed to better control the two organizations’ activities. A subsequent statement from the president’s office on Thursday night said concerns had been raised about whether the two organizations were in accord with Afghanistan’s Constitution, its “national sovereignty” and humanitarian principles. Mr. Karzai will issue a new decree governing the two organizations, the statement said, and until then the commission will be in charge of overseeing them.

In other words, the Karzai approach is to clip the wings of the independent anti-corruption agencies.

Meanwhile, at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Carrie Johnson takes a look at the Justice Department’s own efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan, which seems to have backfired in an embarrassing way:

One story begins in April 2009, on a rainy day in Afghanistan. Contractor Raymond Azar waited in a cafeteria with a co-worker for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer to come discuss a project. Instead, a group of federal agents came. Azar’s lawyer Jim Hibey described what happened next. “So they shackle his feet, they handcuff him at the waist, with a chain around the waist,” Hibey said. “I should say before they do that, they do a full body strip search. Not only is he naked, but when I say full body I mean full body cavity search.”

In other words, Justice Department actors are using techniques identical to those that the CIA describes as “preparatory,” intended to get a subject to break and talk, and they’re using them on a secondary target in a petty contract fraud case, involving ballpark $100,000. The court was not amused. Judge Gerald Bruce Lee handed down Azar’s sentence in a federal courthouse in Virginia on November 6: six months and a fine of $5,000 on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery in connection with an Army construction contract. This slap on the wrist seemed calculated to send a message to the Justice Department: What on earth were you thinking?

Johnson also explores a second case in which Justice Department officials used heavy-handed tactics on an Afghanistani businessman accused of trying to secure corrupt contracts.

Behre represents an Afghan business executive accused of bribing Army officials to win contracts at Bagram. The U.S. military officers involved in the case used the mail to send thousands of dollars in cash back home. The American servicemen all pleaded guilty. Behre’s client and his brother are still fighting with the Justice Department over access to witnesses and evidence in Afghanistan, information they say they need from a place that’s expensive and dangerous to visit.

Behre is battling with the Justice Department now over the ability to depose witnesses in Afghanistan with his client present. In the process, he seems to have trapped the Justice Department in some misleading or contradictory statements to the court. On the one hand, Justice claims, Behre’s client was removed from Afghanistan lawfully, with the knowledge and approval of the Afghan government (a contention that Afghan government figures deny). On the other, Justice opposes Behre’s push for depositions in Kabul by stating that it has no power or authority to detain or hold the Afghan businessman on Afghan soil.

Remarkably absent from Washington’s drive against corruption in Afghanistan is any introspection. In the early years of the Afghanistan conflict, the United States was generous with “walking around money,” making payments to buy the support of local leaders as needed. It also appears to have found a number of soft exceptions to its contracting guidelines. These steps helped frame the environment, and a look in the mirror may be essential to victory on the anticorruption front.

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