If the reports are correct that my client, Mahmood Karzai, is under criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, it would be further evidence that the United States has misplaced priorities in helping Afghanistan dismantle systemic corruption and build a stable central government that can survive the inevitable day when U.S. and coalition troops are no longer there.
Mahmood Karzai, an older brother of President Hamid Karzai’s, is one of the few Afghan public figures brave enough to consistently call for a crackdown on corruption in his country. In an Op-Ed column in July in this newspaper, he laid out a plan for cleaning up both low-level bureaucratic corruption and the insidious corruption of people with entrenched power.
When it was disclosed this summer that about $3 billion in cash had been flown out of Kabul International Airport during the past three years, Mahmood Karzai was the only voice insisting that it was not enough for Afghan authorities merely to check the names of the couriers, but that the cash must be traced to the people to whom it belonged. At the Kabul Bank, even though he has just 7 percent of the shares, for months he complained to both Afghan Central Bank offices and privately to U.S. Treasury officials about possible improprieties. The recent Kabul Bank crisis has unfortunately proved him correct.
Mahmood Karzai is a U.S. citizen who files American tax returns. He uses regular banks and accountants and made his money in America, working his way up from waiter to restaurant owner to property owner. He plays by the rules and has invested his money in high-risk projects that are meant to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure. In the process, he has thrown in his lot completely with the United States. If the Taliban retakes power, he will be near the top of the list of those to be publicly hanged.
There is little doubt he is the most transparent prominent figure in Afghanistan. He has provided some reporters with his tax returns, audited financials and even copies of private papers for his Afghan investments. He has offered to testify before congressional committees investigating corruption.
What is his payoff for being a loyal ally and trying to do everything by the book? Possibly, a criminal probe by the U.S. attorney.
As the Wall Street Journal column noted, “Mahmood Karzai’s status as a U.S. citizen would make him easier to prosecute that other Afghans.”
The people who are laughing are the corrupt Afghan officials who are not U.S. citizens, have never used a bank but instead ferry millions in cash through hawalas, or money brokers, and hang up the phone if a reporter calls for comment.
Nothing about Afghanistan and the government led by Hamid Karzai is free of politics, even when it comes to his family. Mahmood helped raise money for his brother’s re-election. And he has talked about the revolutionary idea of creating a political party where candidates run not by their tribal affiliations but based on the quality of their ideas. He even has put out feelers about the possibility of running for office once his brother’s term is finished.
While working since Sept. 11, 2001, to build up his country, the outspoken Mahmood has at times crossed American officials in the American Embassy in Kabul. Is it possible that a criminal probe began as political payback from those who think Mahmood is not pliant enough? Is this the only way U.S. officials have decided to block Mahmood’s political party from being formed or from his delving into politics?
From what I know about my client’s businesses and his own integrity, it is a waste of American taxpayers’ money to have the U.S. attorney devote valuable resources to try to develop a case against a man who has tried his hardest to set an honest standard for building a viable and democratic Afghanistan. Moving against men like Mahmood Karzai instead of concentrating on the real enemy - the Taliban and the real kingpins of corruption - is a sure way for the United States to lose the war in Afghanistan while sending the signal we don’t know who our real friends are.
Gerald Posner is a lawyer and author of 10 best-selling books.