- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A bribery probe involving a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai has angered the Afghan leader and threatens to damage U.S. relations with Kabul just three months after a White House visit that seemed to smooth ties at a critical stage in the war.

Instead, tensions have risen over the aide’s arrest by a U.S.-advised team, and the United States says it is watching the next anti-corruption steps closely.

In the days that followed, Mr. Karzai bluntly criticized U.S. war strategy and ordered private security companies in the nation to disband in four months. He also signed off on the forced retirement of a veteran corruption-fighter amid allegations by the ousted prosecutor and others that cases against high-ranking government officials were being blocked.

U.S. officials have been pressing Mr. Karzai to step up efforts to root out corruption, and he has pledged to do that. At the same time, he has pushed back, saying the international community needs to do more to eliminate corruption in its own procedures involving contractors and eliminate terrorist havens outside Afghanistan’s borders.

Uncertainty about Mr. Karzai’s commitment to combat graft and corruption comes as the last of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements arrived in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO military officials are stressing the need to follow security gains on the battlefield with improvements in governance — and do it posthaste.

“What we are seeking to do is to encourage the development of good governance — that which serves the people rather than that which preys on the people,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press and two other news organizations Tuesday.

The recent arrest of Mohammad Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for Afghanistan’s National Security Council, may have stymied that goal.

Mr. Salehi, who has not been formally charged, was arrested in July for allegedly accepting a car in exchange for his help in thwarting another corruption case involving a company that handles huge money transfers worldwide.

Outraged by the arrest, Mr. Karzai intervened and ordered his release. Western law enforcement officials who advised on the case said investigators followed Afghan law in taking Mr. Salehi into custody for questioning. Mr. Karzai insisted that Mr. Salehi’s civil rights were violated in the arrest, which he described as reminiscent “of the Soviet Union, where people were taken away from their homes by armed people in the name of the state.”

Mr. Karzai ordered a review of the conduct of Afghanistan’s Major Crimes Task Force and Sensitive Investigative Unit, both of which were involved in the arrest. The two units, which are mentored by U.S. and British law enforcement officials, investigate corruption allegations against high-level Afghan government officials and then feed cases to Afghan prosecutors.

In the past few days, Mr. Karzai signed a decree directing the Ministry of Justice and Karzai aide Nasrullah Stanekzai, who heads the legal advisory board for the palace, to outline the legal responsibilities and authorities of the two units. Mr. Stanekzai, who is also a law professor at Kabul University, said they were working on a draft.

The forced retirement of Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar fueled the controversy.

Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko wrote a retirement letter for Mr. Faqiryar, saying the 72-year-old prosecutor had exceeded 40 years of government service allowed by law. Mr. Karzai accepted it, and Faqiryar was out of a job.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials were in touch with Afghan officials over Mr. Faqiryar’s retirement but would leave it to them to explain the decision.

“What (Mr. Faqiryar) was doing was vitally important to fighting corruption in Afghanistan,” Mr. Crowley said. “It is an area we are watching closely. We are concerned by recent pronouncements, recent actions by the Afghan government. The government has to demonstrate that it is living up to the commitments made by President Karzai and others that it is going to allow the institutions that are being built in Afghanistan, including the Major Crimes Task Force and the Special Investigative Unit, to be able to function free of political interference.”

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