The Obama administration is demanding that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government act promptly against a top national security official accused of corruption in a high-priority money laundering probe.
The warning comes amid new worries that Karzai’s actions in deflecting corruption cases against members of his administration — including ordering that the national security aide be freed from jail — may seriously erode U.S. congressional backing for the war in Afghanistan.
One key Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees economic aid to Afghanistan, told NBC News on Friday that the Afghan president’s latest actions were “outrageous” and may “jeopardize our entire mission” in that country. Lowey last month placed nearly $4 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan on hold, citing mounting concerns that much of the money is being “wasted” and siphoned off by corrupt officials.
A senior administration official confirmed a report in the Washington Post Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Karzai directly this week to give him a “polite reminder” about the importance the Obama administration attaches to two U.S.-backed Afghan anti-corruption units whose activities were derailed this week when the Afghan president put their work on hold.
Privately, U.S. officials are furious about Karzai’s actions and provided new details about the case against the presidential aide, Mohamed Zia Salehi, chief administrator of Afghanistan’s national security council. Salehi holds an extremely sensitive position in the Afghan government as the chief deputy to Karzai’s national security adviser, Randim Dadfar Spanta. He was caught on wiretaps accepting a bribe in exchange for help quashing a major probe into a financial services company, called New Ansari, suspected of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from Afghanistan’s booming drug trade, officials tell NBC.
The wiretaps were considered so damning that U.S. officials played them directly for Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pressed for Salehi’s arrest during a trip to Kabul last month.
But as reported by NBC News, Salehi was released on the same day he was detained last week on direct orders from Karzai’s office, the officials said. The Afghan president then ordered his own probe of the Sensitive Investigations Unit — which developed the case against Salehi —and the Major Crimes Task Force, asserting that their actions in going after members of his administration may violate the Afghan constitution.
Afghan officials have told NBC News that the case against Salehi remains open and he is still facing the bribery charges, which are not public under Afghan law. They also told reporters at a press briefing this week that Karzai will issue a new decree governing the activities of the anti-corruption units to ensure that they are "based on Islamic values and human rights."
In the meantime, Salehi “is still on the job,” a U.S. official said.
What Karzai does now — whether he removes Salehi and allows the case against his aide to proceed — could become a key component in President Barack Obama’s policy review of his Afghanistan strategy later this year. “This will be a very important test of the Karzai government’s commitment to fighting corruption,” the senior administration official said.