Pervasive Afghan Corruption Hurts U.S. Efforts

So with American and British help and pressure, the Afghan government has beefed up the Major Crimes Task Force, designed to go after high level offenders in corruption, kidnapping, and organized crime cases. Despite being 10 months old, only the kidnapping portion of the task force is complete, according to task force officials.

"We're just beginning," says a task force official.

The corruption unit isn't fully trained, but it is prosecuting one major case so far that the half dozen Western officials interviewed for this article all concede is a test of the government's willingness to pursue anti-corruption charges.

Two colonels and one general from Kandahar's border police have been accused of graft and are currently in prison awaiting trial, says a task force member. Two other Kandahar border police officials have fled. The police commanders are the most senior officials – military or civilian – to be prosecuted for corruption, according to both Afghan and Western officials.

"We focus on the police, because there are a lot of problems there, and that's who most civilians interact with on a regular basis," says the task force official.

In addition, at least two ministers are under investigation for corruption.

The mines minister, according to Western and Afghan anti-corruption officials, is being investigated for accepting a $30 million bribe in exchange for awarding a Chinese company a contract worth $3 billion. The allegation was first revealed by the Washington Post.

Corrupt Afghan Government Is Victory for Taliban

The minister for religious affairs, according to an Afghan anti-corruption official, is being investigated for trying to smuggle approximately $400,000 into Afghanistan from Dubai in boxes of crackers.

It is not yet clear whether the Karzai administration has decided to eliminate corruption entirely.

In one widely publicized case, last week the mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sahebi, was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail for improperly awarding a contract. But according to an Afghan government official, Karzai was asked whether the mayor should be jailed, and Karzai said the mayor should be allowed to return to work. The next day, the mayor was behind his desk, giving interviews to journalists.

Afghan anti-corruption officials argue that today there is a greater willingness by senior government officials to crack down on corruption than there ever was in the past.

"Nobody wants to be known as the leader of a corrupt country," says one.

Anti-corruption officials have increased their work and reveal they are working on other cases, the most prominent of which involves customs officials who have defrauded the government out of "billions" of dollars in customs fees by pocketing many of them, said one official, who would not give more details for fear of spoiling the ongoing investigation.

Western officials here hope that a few high profile arrests followed up with jail time can help convince Afghans that the government has decided to crack down on corrupt senior officials.

"You have to provide fear among the top circles," says a member of the High Commission on Oversight.

"Here's the idea: you get the big fish and you make an example of them," says one Western official. "Getting a few government ministers would prove there's a will by the president to clean things up."

But removing the high level offenders is not the final solution, Western and Afghan anti-corruption officials insist.

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