Afghanistan's Karzai confronts graft, opponents

KABUL Thu Jun 21, 2012 11:36pm IST

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference in Kabul June 12, 2012. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference in Kabul June 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Thursday for the country's parliament to fight the graft and nepotism that is eroding international confidence in his government ahead of a July meeting with donors in Tokyo aimed at securing extra aid.

Karzai, addressing a specially convened parliamentary session aimed at confronting political opponents and the myriad challenges facing the country before the end-2014 departure of NATO combat troops, stressed the need for greater unity.

"Nepotism, tribalism, partisanship, nationalism are all government failures which need your cooperation in order to get fixed," said Karzai, dressed somberly in a dark suit and the trademark Karakul hat of past Afghan kings, waving away interjections by some lawmakers.

"Each government worker who reaches an important rank is respected not because of his position, but by how many armed men and cars he has with him," he said.

Donors will gather in Tokyo to decide on future foreign support for reconstruction and development in desperately poor Afghanistan, which is still heavily reliant on aid, and suffers from widespread graft more than ten years into the NATO-led war.

The head of Afghanistan's central bank said this week his country would need $6-7 billion a year in aid over the next decade to help the economy grow.

Karzai said donor nations were likely to pledge a total of $4 billion in civilian assistance, but in the future Afghans would have only themselves to blame for damaging the country.

"Corruption has reached a peak in this country - the seizure of public and government properties, impunity from the law. These are all the pains of Afghanistan," he said.

"These are all the pains that the government must cure. If cured, Afghanistan will be independent and developed. If not cured, our lives will remain in torment."

Karzai's government has yet to prosecute a single high-level corruption case, despite being ranked one of the world's most graft-affected countries by the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The president is under pressure from Western backers to do more to fight graft, and reassure donors that their money will not be squandered through contract fraud and theft.

Highlighting the worries among Karzai's backers, Britain's aid watchdog this year called on the government in London to tighten its oversight of the aid program in Afghanistan.

WARLORD INFLUENCE GROWING

A resolution calling for more accountability inside the government - and from donors themselves - is expected to be agreed at the Tokyo summit, Western diplomats say.

Even as Karzai spoke, reports emerged in Britain's The Telegraph newspaper of anti-corruption activists criticizing the Afghan government over the award of a $3 billion oil deal to a company run by two of Karzai's cousins.

In another move, likely to have been intended to display a tough stance on corruption, Karzai in his speech called for the United States to send former Afghan central bank governor Abdul Qadir Fitrat back to Afghanistan for trial.

Fitrat announced his resignation a year ago during a visit to the U.S., saying he feared for his life as a result of his role in investigating a scandal surrounding Kabulbank, which almost collapsed in 2010 with outstanding loans of near $1 bln.

The former central banker, responding to Karzai's comments by telephone from the United States, denied any wrongdoing and said he had been singled out because he had made a stand against corruption at the highest levels of Afghanistan's political establishment.

He said he believed Karzai was speaking against corruption now in order to ease donor nations' long-standing concerns about graft, which might diminish future aid commitments.

"He has deceived the international community for the past 10 years, and he is trying to deceive it again before the Tokyo conference," Fitrat told Reuters.

Karzai also took aim at political rivals in his speech, making an oblique reference to former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who holds a ceremonial government post but is suspected of intimidating a Chinese company and keeping a large militia force in his northern power base. Dostum's political party denies allegations of wrongdoing.

Karzai said warlord influence was strengthening in some parts of central Afghanistan ahead of NATO's gradual exit, which will leave a smaller force of elite troops and soldiers advising Afghanistan's own forces.

"In recent days, there are signs of wrong use of power, and guns have emerged in the provinces as well as in the capital," Karzai said, to protests from some MPs.

Dostum is part of a political alliance coalescing against Karzai ahead of presidential elections in 2014 in which Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, but for which he is expected to anoint a successor.

Karzai said Afghanistan would require help in keeping its growing police and army equipped and ready to battle the Taliban and its allies, with donors also expected to provide $4.1 billion a year post-2014 to finance local security forces.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Missy Ryan; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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