The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul
August 18, 2010|By Laura King and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington — The Obama administration on Tuesday delivered what might be its toughest warning yet to President Hamid Karzai over corruption in his government through a messenger who in the past has managed to forge a rapport with the mercurial Afghan leader in times of tension.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew in for a one-day visit to the Afghan capital that included two sessions with Karzai, whose relations with the United States have plunged to a low not seen since last summer’s fraud-riddled presidential election.
Karzai and the West are in the midst of a confrontation over his efforts to assert control over two Afghan bodies set up with U.S. backing to combat high-level graft and fraud. The dispute burst into the open last month after a senior aide to Karzai was targeted in a bribery investigation.
Karzai has stopped short of trying to shut down or significantly restrict the activities of the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit. But he has hinted he may seek to do so, a prospect that has caused concern among his Western patrons that has only increased as the Karzai government has failed to live up to its frequent promises to curb corruption.
Before an evening meeting with the Afghan president, Kerry told reporters he would lay down specific benchmarks that Karzai would need to meet in order to demonstrate that he was making good-faith efforts on the issue.
Kerry also suggested that Karzai would receive a blunt message about congressional restiveness over the war, unease that is increasingly fueled by the corruption issue. A House panel is threatening to hold up $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan if the Obama administration can’t provide proof that the money won’t be lost to corruption and waste.
“I think President Karzai understands that this is an important moment,” Kerry said. “It is going to be vital that the president lead, over these next months, a very public, tangible, accountable effort to be providing the best governance to the people.”
However, Kerry also telegraphed willingness to listen to Karzai’s grievances, which could help provide a face-saving way out of the impasse. He also made a point of framing the Afghan leader’s objections to the work of the anti-corruption units in sympathetic terms.