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Afghan anti-corruption program is corrupt, US officials say

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signs a decree in 2016 establishing an independent Anti-Corruption Justice Center in Kabul, responsible for tackling high-level corruption in Afghanistan.

COURTESY OF THE UNITED NATIONS ASSISTANCE MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 9, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan — An anti-corruption program once seen as a beacon of hope in Afghanistan is failing to accomplish much, according to U.S. officials who say the nation’s top prosecutor is corrupt.

The Anti Corruption Justice Center’s efforts have stagnated, while U.S. officials described Afghanistan’s once-lauded attorney general as dishonest, corrupt and deficient, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report released last week.

“The Center was portrayed and emphasized as one of the good things in Afghanistan,” Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said in an interview. “(The report) is pretty devastating for the government, or anyone who wants to argue that there has been important progress and we shouldn’t give up on Afghanistan.”

The attorney general’s office declined comment after multiple requests from Stars and Stripes.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani established the Justice Center with considerable help from Western military advisers and diplomatic organizations in 2016. The Afghan attorney general’s office still tries most corruption cases, but it refers major cases involving senior officials or major sums of money to the Justice Center.

U.S. officials said the Justice Center seemed to be making progress when it completed its first money-laundering case this year.

But there was no significant progress made in major corruption cases this year, the report said. The Justice Center seems to be chasing low-level cases to placate its Western donors, instead of targeting corrupt Afghan high-ranking officials, it said.

“The attorney general’s performance is deficient, his accomplishments are lacking, and he fails to cooperate with the U.S. Embassy on anticorruption matters,” members of the U.S. Justice Department said in a SIGAR report.

U.S. officials told SIGAR that Afghan attorney general Mohammad Farid Hamidi lied to them. After Hamidi announced he had arrested some lawyers for corruption, the U.S. asked for proof and Hamidi was unable to provide any.

Hamidi also said he would introduce modern case-tracking systems by mid-2018, as demanded by U.S. officials. But the attorney general bashed these systems as being imposed by foreigners while talking to Afghan officials, according to SIGAR. Resistance to using these case-tracking systems has led to delays and cases being dropped, according to another report by the Pentagon released in July.

U.S. officials in the report said Hamidi wouldn’t update his methods because of “a concern that more transparency will shine a light on his unproductive, corrupt, and patronage-laden office.”

State Department officials have told Justice Center officials that their productivity is an obstacle to American support. But Justice Center officials convey a “perpetual sense of entitlement” and responded to criticism of their work with requests for more money, the report said.

Other organizations such as the United Nations and NATO’s Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan expressed similar concerns about the Justice Center’s declining performance, the report said. NATO military advisers noted the Justice Center has tried only four general officers in 2018.

NATO’s Resolute Support mission has advisers in the Justice Center and has increased efforts to “re-energize it,” according to the July Pentagon report. Resolute Support does not have advisers in the Afghan attorney general’s office, although they have attempted to gain access to more cases.

A U.S. military officer who advised in the founding of the court said he was always worried the Justice Center would get “watered down.”

U.S. advisers pushed for a daily presence at the Justice Center and lie-detector tests for Afghan prosecutors and police, said Craig Trebilcock, in 2016 a U.S. Army Reserve colonel and director of rule of law in Afghanistan.

The threat of Western money being pulled out of the country, and not justice, was what motivated the opening of the Justice Center, Trebilcock said.

“The Afghans were not enthusiastic about going after corruption, ever,” Trebilcock said. “They were enthusiastic about NATO not pulling the money from them due to the high level of corruption.”

The U.S. and international groups also share responsibility in enabling corruption, said Sarah Chayes, who lived in Kandahar for seven years and researched corruption as a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law program.

The U.S. had a chance to fight corruption in Afghanistan but chose not to, Chayes said.

Specifically, when American-backed Afghan police arrested one of then-President Hamid Karzai’s aides in 2009, the U.S. flinched, Chayes said. The aide, who had been caught on tape soliciting a bribe, escaped all charges, after Karzai’s personal intervention and after revelations the aide had been on the CIA’s payroll.

Ever since then, Afghan officials have understood that American anti-corruption efforts have no teeth, she said.

“Having utterly collapsed themselves in the face of concerted resistance by the kleptocratic network, having abandoned the few brave officials who took their anti-corruption rhetoric seriously, for interveners now to blame the attorney general for functioning the only way he really can within that intact kleptocratic system is a bit rich,” Chayes said.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

 

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