| ||Key Officials Under Karzai Are Criticized|
The New York Times
By Alissa J. Rubin
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KABUL - The chief of Afghanistan’s antigraft commission has called for the country’s finance minister to step aside while he is being investigated in connection with corruption allegations, even as the minister appealed to his Western backers for support.
The back and forth is just one element of what appears to be a widening shake-up in some of the Afghan government’s most powerful ministries, and notably ones that play a critical role in working with the country’s biggest Western supporters, officials say.
The Ministries of Defense, Interior, Mining and Finance — linchpins of United States plans for troop withdrawal and for long-term Afghan development — have all come under intense pressure in recent weeks. The cases are rooted in different political tensions, but taken together they raise the prospect that the West’s already tenuous relationship with the Afghan government could become even less stable.
“Those four ministers constitute the core of the team that we work with and are major liaisons with the international community,” said one senior Western diplomat, who, like other diplomats, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the political situation. “We have to be honest with ourselves and the Afghans and encourage them to conduct proper investigations so that either the accusations are upheld and there are judicial proceedings or they are dispelled.”
Starting in July, a serious altercation between cabinet members has played out over a new mining law that the mining minister, Wahidullah Shahrani, with advice from Western consultants, has advocated, saying it would give international mining companies the certainty they need to make substantial investments. Passage was blocked by several other cabinet members, who expressed concerns that the draft law gave away too much to international interests, and their view was publicly supported by President Hamid Karzai.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi both were hit with parliamentary no-confidence votes this month. Mr. Wardak resigned on Tuesday, and Mr. Mohammadi is not expected to last; a search for his replacement is under way.
The Parliament members cited incompetence, nepotism, favoritism and corruption as reasons for seeking their ousters. Few specific allegations were made, however, other than the failure to stop the shelling of Afghan border villages from Pakistan — something that would have been difficult for either official to have achieved without attacking Pakistan, which was not an option from a diplomatic standpoint.
The allegations against Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal are the most directly connected to corruption, and they have been divisive, with his supporters and detractors lobbing accusations at one another.
Mr. Karzai has not publicly criticized or defended him, and the president’s silence has become a topic of debate.
Some political analysts insist that Mr. Karzai’s nondefense amounts to an endorsement of Mr. Zakhilwal’s removal, and they note that the president remained similarly aloof in the cases of the defense and interior ministers. Other analysts argue that Mr. Karzai did not plan to have these high-profile cases coincide and was not prepared with replacements for the cabinet members.
Mr. Zakhilwal’s financial dealings have been questioned before. His role as Mr. Karzai’s chief fund-raiser during the 2009 re-election campaign, in which he was reported to have moved hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mr. Karzai’s coffers, put him in the cross hairs of journalists and political opponents.
In recent weeks, Mr. Zakhilwal’s finances have again come under the microscope with an investigation by Tolo, an Afghan television channel. In two reports, Tolo reporters used his bank statements to suggest that the finance minister was accepting money from Afghan businesses and that he was transferring tens of thousands of dollars to banks outside the country.
Mr. Zakhilwal emphatically denied the allegations and insisted that a smear campaign was under way. He has explained the payments from businesses as consulting fees, although some were earned while he was holding public office, and he has endeavored to explain the bank transfers as well. He has family members in Canada and has sent some of the money there. The size of the transactions, however, has raised questions, as have some transfers to banks outside the country.
In an emotional meeting last week with foreign diplomats who have been among his strongest backers, Mr. Zakhilwal, who had been expected to discuss the recent donors’ meeting in Tokyo, made an emotional appeal, saying he was the target of political enemies and pulling out his bank statements to show to the assembled diplomats. At one point, overwhelmed, he left the room to collect himself, returning a few moments later.
“It was a bit awkward,” one of the diplomats said. “What could you say? Most of us were silent.”
Azizullah Ludin, the head of Afghanistan’s commission on corruption, said he was concerned that neither his office nor any other could do a thorough investigation into the finances of Mr. Zakhilwal while the finance minister was still in his job, since Mr. Zakhilwal’s associates at the ministry would protect him.
“If Zakhilwal is in the ministry, we won’t be able to do a free investigation and he may create problems for our staff,” Mr. Ludin said. “If he is in his post he might ask his employees and team not to speak with our investigative team or not let us get access to the documents linking him with corruption.”
Mr. Zakhilwal has offered to show the government his bank records and has gone so far as to request an investigation from the attorney general’s office.
An assistant to the finance minister, Najibullah Manali, said the oversight office on corruption had not contacted the ministry and did not have investigative authority. Nonetheless, Mr. Zakhilwal welcomes the investigation, he said.
“The minister has made clear in a press conference that he has asked the attorney general’s office to investigate his case and find the truth,” Mr. Manali said. “When the attorney general’s office asks us for help, we will welcome it and stand ready to help them.”
Whatever the outcome, the situation has left Western donors nervous about whom they will be able to trust with the first installments of the $16 billion in aid they expect to donate over the next four years.
“If the Finance Ministry is corrupt, where do you go with mutual accountability?” another foreign diplomat said. “It becomes a pretty dire equation.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.