WASHINGTON — Under a new anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan, the U.S. government won't aggressively pursue top Afghan officials suspected of malfeasance, conceding that "limited judicial capacity and political interference" from President Hamid Karzai's government make success in prosecuting them unlikely.
Instead, the document, obtained by McClatchy, puts a priority on fighting corruption at the local level and strengthening Afghan institutions to deal with it, through an array of new and existing initiatives. Whether that approach will make a difference remains unclear.
When it comes to dealing with corrupt senior Afghan officials, the Obama administration "may be compelled to act unilaterally" when the Afghan government won't, by freezing the officials' financial assets in the U.S. or preventing their travel here, the strategy says.
The strategy is designed to direct U.S. government efforts against one of the most serious problems threatening President Barack Obama's counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, backed by nearly 100,000 U.S. troops. The U.S. policy in Afghanistan, backed by billions of dollars in development projects, is aimed largely at persuading Afghans to trust and support their own, insurgent-threatened government.
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The anti-corruption plan was delayed for months by vigorous disagreements between officials in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, according to U.S. officials and government audit reports.
The shift away from prosecuting high-level Afghan powerbrokers reflects deep tensions with Karzai over the issue, which exploded into public view last summer.
In the most notable case, Karzai intervened to have a top aide released from prison after he was arrested by the Major Crimes Task Force, a U.S.-backed investigating body. The Afghan government dropped all charges against the aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, in November.
The new 13-page strategy document outlines an essentially bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach to fighting corruption, one that is led by the Afghans themselves.
"The goals of this strategy are to strengthen Afghan institutions to provide checks on government power, to positively influence the behavior of corrupt officials, and to tackle visible corruption (especially at the local level) so that the Afghan people can see that change is happening," it states.
But a non-government expert said the strategy appears to avoid hard choices, and set unrealistic goals.
"Nobody could agree on what direction to go in, and they ended up going in all directions," said Scott Worden of the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace, who reviewed the document at McClatchy's request.
"It reads much more like a description of the problem, rather than a particularly targeted plan to solve it," said Worden, an expert on rule-of-law issues and one of three foreign members of Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, which probed fraud during the deeply flawed August 2009 presidential election. "Ninety percent of it won't work and can't work" in the three-year time frame envisioned.
A State Department official emphasized that while the strategy is an overall plan for combating Afghan corruption, "we are continually evaluating and prioritizing our efforts to address corruption as the needs and circumstances evolve."
The official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, added: "We've no misconception that we're going to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan."
Corruption permeates every aspect of Afghan society, from the bribes officials demand for permits of all kinds, to power brokers' control of resources like minerals and timber.
McClatchy reported in November how a firm controlled by Mahmoud Karzai, the president's brother, and Abdul Hussain Fahim, brother to Afghanistan's first vice president, gained control of a key coal mine and cement factory. The firm failed to live up to its written commitments. No charges have been filed against either man or the firm.
Corruption poses "a potentially fatal threat to the (U.S.-led military) mission and the viability of a legitimate Afghan government," said a senior military official, citing a separate anti-corruption plan drafted by NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Like other officials, he also wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Precisely when the government-wide document obtained by McClatchy was finalized is in dispute.
The State Department official said U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke, who died last month, approved it on July 21.
But two other officials with knowledge of the situation said the strategy wasn't made official and disseminated until several weeks ago. An August report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the strategy, drafted at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, had been delayed by changes requested in Washington.
The reasons for the discrepancy couldn't be determined.
The strategy makes dozens of recommendations to strengthen the Afghan government's capability and will to tackle corruption. They include establishing an Anti-Corruption Tribunal; providing enhanced security for judges working on high-profile corruption cases; encouraging Karzai to make appointments based on merit rather than nepotism; and establishing an independent government audit office.
But, it says, "in certain instances, the United States may be compelled to act unilaterally, notwithstanding the lack of Afghan government political will or capacity to hold accountable Afghan government officials."
Complicating matters, the Obama administration has decided to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance directly to Afghan ministries and municipalities in a major policy shift. The move, advocated by Karzai and known as "Afghanization," is meant to demonstrate to Afghans that their government is capable of providing them much needed services.
Administration officials maintain that enough reform-minded, U.S. friendly ministers are sprinkled throughout Karzai's government that they can press ahead with their plan. Despite questions about the thoroughness of the vetting, U.S. officials have preliminarily approved six ministries to receive the direct aid.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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