By Hafizullah Gardesh and Mina Habib
Afghan president Hamid Karzai has acknowledged that corruption in his country has reached an “extreme level”, and urged domestic officials and the international community to help him tackle the problem.
Karzai was applauded after his speech to a special session of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, on June 21, though some observers believed his comments were really designed to play to the international community ahead of a major donor meeting in Tokyo on July 8.
Addressing an audience of lawmakers, government officials and members of the judiciary, Karzai said the Afghan state needed greater unity, and urged government, parliament and the judiciary to help him rid the country of tribalism, factionalism and corruption.
“Corruption has reached an extreme level in this country, swamping the government, the people and the land,” he said.
Karzai called on the United States and other countries to extradite any Afghans accused of corruption, and to return money illicitly transferred out of the country. He also asked the international community, particularly the US, not to award construction contracts to Afghan officials or their relatives.
“An Afghan who signs a contract with Americans or other foreigners is not committed to his president because he is taking orders from elsewhere,” Karzai said.
The president noted that he had previously been criticised for pursuing “compromise” policies, but vowed that he would no longer do so.
“That will change from now on,” he said.
Critics of Karzai say that while he has repeatedly promised to improve governance and transparency, progress has been limited during his tenure. Despite the billions of dollars in international aid that have poured into Afghanistan since the US-led invasion of October 2001, public confidence in the authorities has been undermined by weak government and rampant corruption, while war has continued to hamper reconstruction efforts.
Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest producer of opium and its derivative heroin, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2011, Afghanistan came 180th equal out of 183 countries; only North Korea and Somalia were seen as more corrupt.
The National Coalition, an opposition bloc in parliament, was sceptical about the speech. Spokesman Sayed Hussein Fazel Sancharaki said the event was hyped up for weeks before, but once Karzai began speaking, it became clear that “he had nothing to tell the poor nation”.
Jawid Kohistani, a political analyst, said he had high hopes of Karzai’s speech beforehand, but came away disappointed.
Many Afghans, he said, believed the speech would be important because all three branches of power would be present, and because it came ahead of the NATO troop withdrawal which will leave national forces fully in charge of security by the end of 2014.
Kohistani said he expected to hear a detailed roadmap for Afghanistan’s future, as well as announcements of major steps to tackle corruption and improve governance.
“Unfortunately, he said nothing but the same sentimental, irrelevant remarks,” Kohistani said. “I was really very disappointed.”
Kohistani said it would be difficult for Karzai to rein in officials implicated in corruption since he depended on their loyalty.
“I don’t know who Karzai is going to take serious action against, because those who merit this are all part of his team,” he said.
Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament representing Kabul, said the speech was positive in that it convened legislators, the judiciary and the executive, all of which were needed to solve the country’s problems.
Welcoming the fact that Karzai had mentioned the near-collapse of Kabul Bank, Barakzai noted that the president’s brother had links to the institution.
During his speech, Karzai urged the US to hand over the Kabul Bank’s former governor Abdul Qadir Fitrat, who fled Afghanistan last year, and said everyone involved in the case would be brought to justice.
Fitrat fled to the US in June 2011 because he feared for his safety after investigating allegations of fraud at the bank, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
The bank was seized by regulators in August 2010 after shareholders allegedly dipped into its funds to award loans to themselves, friends, relatives and business associates, according to a New York Times report.
Karzai’s older brother Mahmoud Karzai was a shareholder in the bank. In June, AFP news agency quoted deputy attorney general Rahmatullah Nazari as saying Mahmoud Karzai had paid back all loans from the bank.
Barakzai said Karzai’s speech might imply a new, tougher stance on malpractice by Afghan officials.
“The president said he will take serious action from now on,” she said, adding, “I won’t be able to trust or believe in these remarks until they are put into practice.”
Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria said the speech was light on content, and contained no real commitments. Instead, he said, the speech looked like a propaganda effort ahead of the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan.
The Tokyo meeting will seek to secure aid commitments for Afghanistan in the lead-up to2014 and to chart a course beyond the troop withdrawal. As well as pledging money, donors are expected to ask Afghanistan to develop safeguards against corruption, Reuters reported.
“Karzai has come under pressure from the international community to combat corruption and establish a sound government on several occasions, but he has failed to do so,” Oria said. “Now that the Tokyo conference is drawing near, he wants to deceive the people of Afghanistan and the international community once again… by behaving as if he has decided to establish good governance.”
Sancharaki, too, saw the speech to a broad audience of lawmakers, government officials and judiciary members as an attempt to convince foreign donors that Karzai still enjoyed solid national support.
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 435.