Under pressure, Karzai agrees to back anti-graft efforts

KABUL, Afghanistan — Under pressure from Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly agreed Friday to back the independence of two American-backed anti-corruption groups that the Afghan president had threatened to rein in amid an ongoing investigation that's targeted one of his trusted palace aides.

Securing Karzai's support for the anti-corruption efforts was a central goal of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's extended four-day visit to the region.

After pressing Karzai on the issue earlier this week before a visit to Pakistan, Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made an unplanned return visit to Kabul on Thursday in an effort to secure assurances from the Afghan president that he would take the issue seriously.

During his Kabul visits, Kerry warned that Karzai was in danger of losing already-wavering support in Washington, where nearly $4 billion in non-military aid for Afghanistan in 2011 already has been put on hold amid the anti-corruption disputes.

Karzai and Kerry appeared together Friday at the presidential palace, where the Afghan president publicly backed two anti-corruption entities that he'd criticized as heavy handed following the arrest of a trusted adviser who's suspected of soliciting bribes.

"We will make sure that these bodies are run in accordance with Afghan laws, under the Afghan constitution, and are sovereign as Afghan bodies and independent — absolutely, in full terms — as Afghan bodies, to continue to fight against corruption," Karzai said.

Kerry said he's "very heartened to hear the president and the members of his government re-commit themselves to significant efforts in the days ahead to guarantee the independent operation of their major crimes unit."

Karzai "has guaranteed that there will be action, there will be changes . . . that can give confidence to people that there is movement and accountability and transparency in that process," Kerry said. "And I welcome that, Mr. President."

In a nod toward Karzai's concerns about the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigation Unit, Kerry also said that the two should "respect human rights and the Afghan constitution" when doing their work.

Earlier this week, Kerry said that Karzai had legitimate concerns about the special forces type operation used last month to apprehend Mohammed Zia Salehi, the administrative head of Afghanistan's National Security Council, allegedly caught on wiretaps asking for bribes to help quash a corruption investigation.

"Objecting to five-o-clock in the morning, at gunpoint, tactics and arrests to me does not signal a lack of support for fighting corruption," Kerry said earlier this week in reference to Salehi's arrest.

However, some Karzai critics said that his public assurances were no guarantee that he wouldn't use his power to neuter the anti-corruption bodies.

Karzai's agreement came after The Washington Post reported that Salehi also is under investigation for allegedly handing out lucrative rewards to Karzai's powerful supporters.

Even with his public pledge, Karzai still has the ability to muzzle the anti-corruption efforts by imposing new oversight currently under consideration in Kabul.


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