November 18, 2009

Leak War

The Kabul airport only canceled regular flights. Perhaps it was too busy ferrying in foreign dignitaries who came to make the reelection of Hamid Karzai look official. His inauguration has much in common with Afghanistan as a whole - under lock-down.

They smiled all the same, none wider than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spent the day tasking Karzai with all of America’s demands. Karzai reciprocated, touting his new anti-corruption unit and pledging to root out corruption. Afghanistan’s attorney general Mohammad Ishaq Aloko claims he formed a list of corrupt Afghan officials.

But as James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, reported from the scene, "He [Karzai] still raised the detention of Afghan prisoners in American jails... he raised other uncomfortable issues for the Americans, the issue of civilian casualties for example. So he was able to make his speech, but it included that central element of corruption that the Americans insisted that they had to hear."

This defiance could be getting him in serious trouble. On the same day Karzai took his oath, the Washington Post reported Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, Afghanistan’s Mining Minister, accepted a 30$ million dollar bribe in 2007 to award a contract to the state-run Metallurgical Corporation of China.

Adel’s alleged bribery hijacked the news cycle. Karzai’s speech already comes under a city curfew with roadblocks and security everywhere. The Taliban have infiltrated Kabul, now his minister is outed. The skies couldn’t get any darker. Well, we take that back.

The Post reports, “The issue has also gained urgency because the ministry is reviewing offers for another massive mining deal -- this time for an iron ore deposit west of Kabul known as Haji Gak -- for which MCC is the front-runner.”

"This guy has done this already; we're in the same situation again," said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A rash of well-timed leaks leaves almost no chance of coincidence. Pentagon officials are leaking President Obama’s plans before his Asian trip while US officials leak Karzai’s brother on the CIA payroll before the runoff. Pakistan-Chinese nukes as Obama hits China. And now Adel on inauguration day. It’s a leak war.

But can Karzai really be pushed and pulled by outing his officials? Though susceptible to bias, Nasir Khisrow Parsi says that Karzai is powerless to stop the corruption, inside or outside the Mining Ministry. Parsi represented Aria Zamin, a competing company with MCC, at the time.

"They can do whatever they want," said Parsi, who now works in the geology department of the Mines Ministry. "The whole ministry is corrupt. No one is clean there. I don't see how this is going to end. Only God can stop this corruption."

America isn’t God.

For his part Adel denies having anything to do with a bribe and accused Jim Yeager, a former World Bank adviser who wrote a report on the 2007 deal, of losing his memory. “This is like blind people describing a landscape,” Adel told The London Times.

Multiple companies offered bribes, Afghan officials stressed, hoping to tone down the impact. In a way it might have. This is Afghanistan after all, and that’s the problem. Every time an opportunity comes to redeem its image, something like Adel’s story kills the progress.

Karzai’s fancy words back in Kabul lose meaning. President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s pleas for reform turn from good intentions to desperation to self-serving. They know all the files on Afghanistan’s corruption and still let Karzai back in power. They've been undercut as bad as Karzai.

In a way the leak backfired.

And the cavalry - not US troops but political reconciliation - isn’t on the way. Karzai offered a spot in a “national unity government” to Dr. Abdullah, who told Tolo TV afterwards, "I have no intention of taking part in Karzai's government.”

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