Details from a vast tranche of cables released by the WikiLeaks website could further erode support for the nine-year war. It would seem that applying heavy public pressure on President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption, U.S. and NATO officials, is a waste of words. The leaked cables validate 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.
The December 2010, U.S. diplomatic cables revealed 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.
A main concern in the cables appears to be Karzai himself, who emerges as a volatile, clever, slick con artist whose main game plan was to extort millions in foreign aid for personal gain for himself and his personal associates. “Evidence collected in the case points to corruption involving U.S. funds and actively undermining the Afghan government’s counter insurgency policy,” the cable stated.
In October 2009, a cable from the U.S. Director of Development said “vast amounts of cash come and go from the country on a weekly, monthly and annual basis. Before the August 20 election $600 million in banking system withdrawals were reported.” More than $190 million in cash had been taken through Kabul Airport to Dubai alone.
“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 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.
Zakhilwal, the finance minister, said last summer that about $4.2 billion in cash had been transferred through the airport during the past three and a half years. He said that while it was not illegal to transfer cash out of Afghanistan, officials were concerned about the amount being moved.
Hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks paint a picture of corruption in Afghanistan at every level of government and society. Cables from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul portray Afghan President Hamid Karzai as paranoid, with an “inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building.”
Karzai’s paranoia probably surfaces because he is afraid of being caught in his scams of stealing millions of foreign aid for personal gain.
In a July 7, 2009, cable, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry describes “two contrasting portraits” of the Afghan president. “The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed,” the cable says. “The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero. … In order to recalibrate our relationship with Karzai, we must deal with and challenge both of these personalities.” [multiple personality of a con-artist]
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 stated.
In another cable dated Feb. 26, 2010, Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said Karzai was an “extremely weak man” who was easily swayed by anyone reported even the most bizarre stories of plots against him.
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.”
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.”
In an Oct. 3, 2009, cable, Eikenberry describes 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 the 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 allege 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.
Many of the cables were sent from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul over the last two years. The New York Times, which had advance access to the estimated 250,000 documents leaked to WikiLeaks, reported the documents showed corruption’s “pervasive nature, its overwhelming scale, and the dispiriting challenge it poses to American officials.”
One cable from the U.S. mission in Kabul earlier this year noted that the agriculture minister, Asif Rahimi, “appears to be the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.”
At the same time, Dr. Sayed Fatimie, the minister of health, told U.S. diplomats that members of Parliament wanted cash to confirm his appointment. “Fatimie said MPs had offered their own votes and the votes of others they could purportedly deliver for $1,000 apiece,” a cable said.
Another Afghan minister warned U.S. diplomats that Karzai was “under great pressure from political leaders to accept a number of ministerial candidates whose technical skills are lacking.” The minister “argued that these political leaders are only thinking of dividing up the spoils rather than the quality of government needed to tackle Afghanistan’s problems.”
The cables also demonstrate an often difficult relationship between NATO allies and Karzai. At a meeting described in a cable in October 2008, a British official said the United Kingdom “continues to feel ‘deep frustration’ with Karzai. But he added: “I remind people that we — the international community — selected him.”
Some months later, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry drew up a candid psychological profile of Karzai. In a cable dated July 7, 2009, Eikenberry wrote that one portrait of Karzai that emerged was “of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed.” At the same time, he was “an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero who can save the country from being divided by the decentralization-focused agenda of Abdullah [his leading rival for the presidency], other political rivals, neighboring countries, and the US.”
Eikenberry concluded: “In order to recalibrate our relationship with Karzai, we must deal with and challenge both of these personalities.” The following week, Eikenberry reported that “the President’s manner was significantly more relaxed and warm than in meetings the previous week when he was often agitated, accusing the US of working against him.” But again, the ambassador warned: “His inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building and his deep-seated insecurity as a leader combine to make any admission of fault unlikely, in turn confounding our best efforts to find in Karzai a responsible partner.”
The ambassador concluded: “I will begin a frank, collaborative (and perhaps, at times, confrontational) dialogue with Karzai. No alternative approach is now evident. Karzai’s current vision for Afghanistan’s future relies too strongly on warlords, tribal chiefs, and other personalities of the past who would be difficult to reconcile with our commitments to build strong government institutions and professional security forces.”
The cables from Kabul also underline the difficulty in confronting money-laundering of profits from the heroin trade and other criminal enterprises. One from October 2009 claimed that one hawala (informal cash) 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.”
But an investigation of the hawala network proved difficult. One cable reported that Afghanistan’s interior minister asked that the U.S. take a low profile on the case to avoid the perception that investigations were being carried out “at the behest of the United States.”
In another cable, a senior Afghan official told the U.S. Embassy that of the $200 million collected in fees on truck traffic, just $30 million reached government coffers.
The New York Times cites another cable in which an Afghan official explained the “four stages” at which his colleagues skimmed money from development projects: “When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
But one cable from earlier this year graphically demonstrated the dilemma facing U.S. and allied officials as they try to grapple with corruption. It talks about one Afghan Border Police Commander “accused constantly of illegal trafficking and taxing activities.” But at the same time the officer had been careful to “maintain a co-operative relationship with the ISAF (NATO-led International Security Assistance Force) leadership” in a district crucial for the safe passage of NATO convoys.
The cable concluded that both ISAF and the U.S. government “walk a thin tightrope when working with this allegedly corrupt official who is also a major security stabilizing force.” It’s a dilemma that’s echoed on an almost daily basis across Afghanistan, if these cables are any guide.
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.
Much of the graft described in the cables is facilitated by Afghanistan’s hawala money-transfer system, New Ansari. Hawalas, which flourish in the Islamic world, are private money transfer businesses that are difficult to track because they rely on an informal network of brokers, allowing users to avoid regulatory oversight and remain anonymous.
Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan is quoted as saying the corruption of the Karzai government made his “blood boil,” in a diplomatic cable released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Ambassador William Crosbie offered that unvarnished assessment in his discussion last February with his U.S. counterpart, Karl Eikenberry. The two diplomats were having a meeting in Kabul about the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections and their views on Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“In a frank discussion, Canadian ambassador Crosbie explained to ambassador Eikenberry that getting the electoral process right is a bottom-line position for Canada, and said we must be prepared for confrontation with Karzai on this issue, or risk losing credibility among our own population if we go along with a rigged election,” said the cable, which was posted on the website of Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“Ambassador Crosbie told the ambassador that getting this right is a bottom line issue for the Canadians. He was emotional, saying the issue ‘makes my blood boil,’ as he described the Canadian view that the international community must stand up for the silent majority or be blamed for letting Karzai and his family establish across the country the system of patronage and control that exists in Kandahar.” Western leaders have been blasting Karzai’s administration over corruption for years.
But the cable offers new insights into the Harper government’s underlying concern about the military sacrifice Canada is making on behalf of an unreliable government. It surfaces only weeks after Prime Minister Stephen Harper pressed Karzai on corruption at the NATO leaders’ summit. The cable was one of a series of new diplomatic notes made public by WikiLeaks that offered new details of corruption by the Karzai government, including purported links to his country’s illicit drug trade.
Last month in Portugal, Harper said the Afghan government doesn’t deserve a “dime” of direct foreign aid money until it deals with its widespread corruption. Karzai asked NATO leaders and coalition partners to step up the flow of aid dollars directly to his government instead of filtering it through international organizations operating in the country.
The Afghan government receives 20 per cent of the billions of aid dollars directly, but Karzai wants to see that increased to 50 per cent. Harper and fellow NATO leaders made it clear to Karzai during crucial talks on the future of Afghanistan that they want him to do more to weed out corruption, sources had told The Canadian Press.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said there are “real tensions” in the relationship with Karzai.