US Defense Secretary says Afghans should lead corruption fight

By Anne Gearan, AP
Thursday, September 2, 2010

US Def Sec: Afghans should lead corruption fight

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that while the fight against corruption must be led by Afghans, the U.S. is working on new ways to prevent millions of American dollars flowing into the nation from underwriting bribery and graft.

Gates spoke to reporters in the Afghan capital with President Hamid Karzai, who complained about the tactics of two Western-backed anti-corruption units that recently arrested one of his top aides on suspicion of bribery, likening them to heavy-handed Soviet tactics.

The U.S. views the arrest of Mohammed Zia Salehi as a test of Karzai’s willingness to take on graft in his government.

Salehi was arrested by Afghan police after allegedly being wiretapped discussing a bribe. He called Karzai from his jail cell in July and was freed hours later.

Soon afterward Karzai blasted the work of the U.S.-backed corruption investigators involved in that case and review how they operate.

“The key here is that the fight against corruption needs to be Afghan-led,” Gates said. “This is a sovereign country.”

Gates said two units, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit, should operate under Afghan law. But he was clear that the U.S. will keep backing investigations into cronyism and illicit activities.

Gates said U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, were developing new guidelines for how U.S. funds are handed out for development and other projects.

Karzai pledged to work against corruption, which is undermining trust in his government and making it difficult to maintain international support for the war.

Gates also said that if Taliban insurgents believe American forces will walk out of Afghanistan next July, they will be disappointed. Gates says U.S. forces will remain after the July 2011 date that President Barack Obama has set for the beginning of a pullout, if security permits.

American public opinion is turning strongly against the war with the majority of Americans now saying they doubt it is worth fighting.

“It is important to be honest about this,” Gates said. “The United States is spending over $100 billion a year in this fight in Afghanistan. America’s sons and daughters are being killed. The American people need to know that 15 years from now we are not going to still be fighting this fight.”

Gates is the most senior U.S. official to meet with Karzai since the president’s decision to intervene in the Salehi case and review the anti-corruption units. Those actions were widely interpreted in the U.S. as undermining efforts to clean up his government and as a slap in the face to his U.S. backers.

Karzai said his motives have been mischaracterized and he is trying to build credibility of the Afghan government to police itself.

Earlier Thursday, Petraeus said the sometimes strained relationship between the U.S. and Karzai is solid. Petraeus acknowledged “friction” over the Salehi case, which he said had been resolved. The general said he had heard Karzai assure Obama that he would back the work of U.S.-mentored anti-corruption investigators.

“President Karzai is the first to note that more has to be done” about corruption overall, Petraeus said.

“It’s a relationship in which there is candor,” Petraeus said. “We do not always come at every issue from the same perspective but I think that’s a reflection of the strength of the relationship.”

will not be displayed