And for a brief moment in July, US officials got everyone to look in the same direction during Kabul’s international conference.
A masterpiece of choreography, Western governments and media packaged the conference as a turning point in Afghanistan. Karzai’s fraudulent election long forgotten, US President Barack Obama declared from Washington, “The Kabul Conference shows that... Afghanistan has the support of the international community, including the United States, which will remain a long-term partner for the security and progress of the Afghan people.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, just in from a diplomatic tour in Pakistan, hailed President Hamid Karzai’s efforts: “The Afghan government is stepping forward to deal with a multitude of difficult challenges. We are encouraged by much of what we see, particularly their work to improve governance. These steps are important. But much more work remains."
US officials paid special attention to scrubbing away the stain of corruption. Special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke returned to tell Congress that US-funded task force operations successfully targeted corrupt individuals inside Afghanistan's government, declaring it proof that Karzai “is serious about fighting corruption.”
Until he ordered probes into those anti-corruption units, citing breaches in the constitution and human rights abuses. Some analysts claim Karzai is being squeezed by those fragments in his power base coming under threat.
Now The Washington Post reports, “Obama administration officials fear that a move by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to assert control over U.S.-backed corruption investigations might provoke the biggest crisis in U.S.-Afghan relations since last year's fraud-riddled election and could further threaten congressional approval of billions of dollars in pending aid.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee, has already threatened to withhold approval of $4 billion in non-military aid to Afghanistan for fiscal 2011. She responded in an interview for the story that Karzai's actions are "extremely troubling” and “put at jeopardy our mission."
"That money will not go forward until I get clearance that the promises and commitments that have been made by the Afghan government to work in good faith to stop corruption have taken place.”
The White House and Pentagon have shown less concern, desperate for funds and standing on their last leg in Karzai. US Secretary Robert Gates warns that delaying support for US soldiers puts them at risk, true to a point, but the influence is negligible compared to the erratic Karzai, a potential black-hole within US strategy. Holbrooke admitted to Lowey's subcommittee last week, “if corruption isn't dealt with, other things won't succeed. We had stated that it was a malignancy that could destroy everything else we were doing."
Said one NATO official involved in anti-corruption, "It has progressively gotten worse. It's at all levels.” And another Western official, "There is no political will on the government side to do anything that is meaningful, although everybody knows they have to say the word 'corruption' every time they talk about Afghanistan.”
"The U.S. had made strengthening the Afghan government's capability to combat corruption a priority," retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a report released Thursday. "However, the majority of U.S. reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan has been provided without the benefit of an approved comprehensive U.S. anti-corruption strategy."