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Afghan finance minister offers peek at high-level corruption

KABUL — With his arms spread across the table, leaning into his microphone, Afghanistan’s finance minister did something rare in the country’s fight against corruption: He started naming names.

Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal wasn’t acting entirely selflessly. He was up for a vote of impeachment in Afghanistan’s parliament on Monday for nepotism and graft.

As nervous murmurs and laughter rose in the chamber, he went on the offensive.

Haji Zahir Qadir from Nangarhar, he said, has smuggled $269 million worth of flour into the country over the past two years.

Mohammad Azim Mohsini of Baghlan asked the Finance Ministry for houses.

Samiullah Samim from Farah called the minister to get five impounded tankers smuggling fuel released.

Mahmood Khan Sulaiman of Paktika sent Zakhilwal money to appoint his son as a customs official.

Arif Rahmani from Ghazni tried to use his influence to get Finance Ministry money and contracts.

And Hamidzai Lalai from Kandahar illegally imported alcohol and made a death threat against a customs official. He also offered to bribe Zakhilwal to let him import vehicles with steering wheels on the wrong side. “You wanted it,” Lalai called from his seat. Zakhilwal shot back, “We’ll see who wanted something,” and kept reading out more accusations.

As he named them, some of the accused lawmakers shouted and waved papers. Other parliamentarians gasped as he read off dollar amounts. But in the end, Zakhilwal survived the impeachment attempt with overwhelming support.

Whether his allegations are substantiated remains to be seen, but, Zakhilwal, whose performance in parliament was posted to YouTube, has become an internet hero among Afghans. In comments on the YouTube video, one user wrote, “It seems like he’s speaking for most of our Afghan people.” Another posted, “This is a small part of their hidden business.”

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of a think tank called Afghanistan Analysts Network, said that while corruption is obvious to most people in Afghanistan, officials rarely speak out with specifics.

“There’s a reluctance to go public,” she said. “People go public, but are reluctant to name powerful figures — people are reluctant to do it because everything’s personal.”

The last time she recalled a high-ranking official calling people out by name was also in a Parliament session, when the governor of the Central Bank, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, named shareholders of Kabul Bank, which went down in a blaze of scandal in 2010. While the bank’s staff went to trial, the shareholders have so far not faced charges. Fitrat is now in the United States and is wanted by Afghan authorities for further investigation.

While Monday’s revelations were dramatic, van Bijlert believes it was less about shining a light on corruption and more about the tussle between Parliament and the Cabinet.

Van Bijlert says Cabinet members, like many other high-ranking officials, come under immense pressure by members of parliament to appoint allies and to fudge rules — often with the threat that if they refuse, they will be summoned and possibly impeached.

By publicly embarrassing members of parliament, Zakhilwal has pushed back and presented his own threat: this is what can happen if you cross the line. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Cabinet is clean, Van Bijlert said. And, she’s skeptical it will lead to a clean-up: “In Afghanistan, you usually don’t get in trouble for corruption just because you’re corrupt. Most of the time it’s because someone wants to come after you.”

It remains to be seen how parliament will react. They may throw denounce the six named MPs for their alleged underhanded dealings, while other members continue to engage in graft, Van Bijlert said. But they could also circle the wagons, seeing the confrontation as an attack on all of them, and prepare evidence of Cabinet corruption for a counterattack.

“It will be interesting to see how they deal with it,” van Bijlert said.

Zubair Babakarkhai contributed to this report.

standifer.cid@stripes.com

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