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Under pressure, Afghanistan unveils anti-corruption plans : Ministers announce a new crime unit and other measures as Western envoys push Karzai for reforms.

November 17, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Seeking to smooth over a key point of contention in advance of President Hamid Karzai's inauguration this week, senior Afghan officials Monday unveiled what they described as tough new anti-corruption measures.

With the Afghan leader poised to be sworn in Thursday for a second five-year term, the West has been putting pressure on Karzai to institute swift reforms or face a loss of international support. Recent days have seen criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, both of whom suggested that future aid to Karzai's government could be tied to his efforts against corruption.

In apparent response to the growing international pressure, Afghanistan's chief justice, interior minister, justice minister, security chief and attorney general appeared at an unusual joint news conference to announce the launch of a major-crime task force and a new anti-corruption unit.

The ambassadors to Britain and the United States also attended the briefing, in what appeared to be a gesture aimed at demonstrating solidarity in the anti-corruption fight but also providing an implicit warning to the Karzai camp of the consequences of a failure to act.

Karzai's inauguration coincides with debate in the Obama administration over war strategy in Afghanistan, including whether to send in tens of thousands more U.S. troops. Rather than providing a hoped-for mandate for the next Afghan government, the election exacerbated long-simmering anger over the pervasive reach of corruption in public life, extending from the village to the national level. Bribes are routinely extorted for everything, from fixing traffic tickets to awarding lucrative contracts.

Results of the first round of presidential voting, held Aug. 20, initially handed Karzai an outright victory, but a fraud investigating commission subsequently invalidated nearly a million votes cast for the Afghan leader and said a second round of voting would be needed to settle the contest. A runoff with Karzai's chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, was canceled when Abdullah dropped out, suggesting he did not believe the vote would be fair.

At Monday's news conference, one senior Afghan official after another described graft and bribery as a blight on their society. "Corruption is a cancer," said Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish.

Although the gathering was at least nominally a media event, the front rows were packed with Karzai supporters who enthusiastically applauded assertions that reform would be a centerpiece of the new administration.

Tellingly, the Afghan ministers laid emphasis on the success of anti-corruption efforts already in place, while the U.S. and British envoys emphasized support for what they characterized as still-nascent plans to confront malfeasance at high levels.

"It's early days," said British Ambassador Mark Sedwill.

British and American law enforcement agencies are working with their Afghan counterparts in the new anti-corruption drive, the diplomats said.

Aware that a perceived excess of outside pressure on Karzai might cause the Afghan leader to lose face and become more intransigent, both Sedwill and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry made a point of praising the incoming administration's willingness to confront corruption. Addressing a key Western concern, Eikenberry expressed confidence that Karzai would seek qualified and competent people to fill senior posts in his new administration.

But the tainted election left the Afghan leader beholden to an array of unsavory figures, some of whom expect to claim positions of influence in the new government. Without naming names, Eikenberry issued a strongly worded denunciation of ill-gotten riches among the Afghan elite, some widely believed to be the fruit of the narcotics trade.

"Ordinary Afghans must be convinced that the powerful can no longer exploit their positions to make themselves wealthy while the less fortunate in this country struggle to find work and to feed their families," the ambassador said.

"The appearance of luxurious mansions around Kabul, with many expensive cars parked outside, surrounded by private armed guards, is a very worrisome sign that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service."

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laura.king@latimes.com

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