KABUL, Afghanistan — Anti-western outbursts by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai have sent ripples of concern through the nations contributing thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the mission in this war-torn South Asian country.
Karzai has been accused of blindsiding his backers with suggestions that coalition soldiers are seen as “invaders” and his claim that foreign governments, and not his own supporters, were behind widespread election fraud last year.
Afghan leaders report Karzai has also threatened to join the Taliban if he is pushed too hard to crack down on the corruption that has plagued his government.
Some politicians and analysts now question whether Karzai can be trusted to transform Afghanistan into a democracy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has labelled the Afghan president’s comments as “unacceptable.”
But none of these concerns come as a surprise to former Afghan minister Ramazan Bashardost.
Long ignored by the Canadian, U.S. and other western embassies here, Bashardost has been warning diplomats for years that the Afghan president is unfit to govern and that Karzai has turned his back on democracy.
Corruption had eroded any semblance of proper government, he said, adding that warlords are the real power in the Karzai administration. Much of the estimated $75 billion sent to Afghanistan — about half of that for foreign aid — has been siphoned off by corrupt officials, said Bashardost, a former minister in Karzai’s government who quit in 2004 because of the widespread corruption.
“With this money, we can build three or four new Afghanistans,” said Bashardost in an interview before Karzai’s comments made headlines. “Yet that hasn’t happened. Much of the money has been funnelled off to warlords, corrupt government officials, Karzai cronies.”
Bashardost said his message hasn’t been greeted with much enthusiasm among western diplomats, including Canadian Embassy staff, because they have all solidly backed Karzai for years.
Bashardost’s proposals would mean radical change.
He is pushing for the creation of a special prosecutor, police and courts to bring to justice corrupt officials and the alleged war criminals who now hold key positions in the Karzai government.
He has also called for the arrest of Karzai’s brother, Walid, reputed to be heavily involved in the drug trade in Kandahar. The Karzai family has vehemently denied such claims.
“Under the current situation, Afghan police cannot arrest Mr. Karzai’s brother and the prosecutor cannot ask his brother to come for an investigation,” Bashardost said. “But if we have a ministry with a special commando force, a special prosecutor and the head of the ministry is a very clean man or woman who believes in human rights, who believes in good governance” the situation would change.
The 45-year-old Paris-educated Bashardost believes that a war against corruption is even more important than the war against the Taliban. Without a real crackdown on officials stealing aid money or profiting from drug deals, Afghanistan will never have a proper government that people can trust and support, he said.
Bashardost has also spoken out about the high-priced western consultants, some earning up to $30,000 a month to advise the Karzai government.
In addition, he questioned how the international community provides aid to Afghanistan, pointing out that much of those funds go back to companies or agencies from the countries that donate the money in the first place. Average Afghans have seen little from all the development money that has poured into the country, he added.
Bashardost said he is surprised Canada isn’t pushing harder to rein in the corruption within the Afghan government.
“It is Canadian taxpayer money, it’s American taxpayer’s money that arrives in Afghanistan,” he said. “And it’s an Afghanistan mafia group that shares it. It is not for Afghan people.”
U.S. government officials, who conducted a recent covert study, estimated that $190 million was smuggled out through the Kabul airport over a 19-day period. No one has done a similar study for Kandahar airport, also considered a smuggling hub.
Last year, two government officials were caught at the Kabul airport trying to smuggle out $360,000 in cash. There are allegations that Islamic Affairs Minister Sadiq Chakari was in on the scheme but he has declared his innocence.
Last fall, Mohammed Ibrahim Adel, the minister of mines, was accused of taking a $30-million bribe from a Chinese firm, in exchange for awarding a multi-billion contract for a copper mine. He has denied the charges.
A United Nations study estimated that, in 2009, more than half the population had to pay some kind of bribe to a public official. The study noted that about $2.5 billion, or about 25 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, was paid out in bribes. It’s not only Afghan government officials stealing funds; some insurgent groups have also acknowledged they received money from aid agencies in exchange for allowing development projects to go ahead without being attacked.
Timothea Gibb, head of public diplomacy and communications at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, said that ambassador William Crosbie met with Bashardost in December. Gibb added that both the governments of Afghanistan and Canada agree that corruption is one of the major challenges facing Afghanistan.
“Canada welcomes Afghan-led efforts to combat corruption through concrete and visible actions and stands ready to work with the government of Afghanistan to support its anti-corruption efforts and activities with a view to building strong accountable state institutions,” Gibb said in an e-mail.
Karzai has said he is cracking down on corruption and has denied allegations he protects drug dealers. But last year, he pardoned five convicted traffickers, including the nephew of his campaign manager. Karzai has also blamed foreigners for spreading allegations that Afghan officials are corrupt. He told CNN that “the issue of corruption has been politically overplayed by some of our partners in the international community.”
Bashardost’s anti-corruption campaign hasn’t gone over well with the Afghan government. He was elected in 2006. After being refused an office, he set up a tent in a parking lot outside Afghanistan’s legislative buildings.
In last year’s presidential election, Bashardost came a surprising third, earning a reported 17 per cent of the vote. He has now moved his tent outside a dusty two-room office near the government buildings. There, a steady stream of Afghans come to him on a daily basis looking for help.
Many westerners who observe Afghan politics dismiss Bashardost’s chances of ever coming to power. Although they acknowledge he has gained respect for consistently standing up against corruption and fighting for human rights and equality for women, they point out he doesn’t have the support of the western countries who are helping shape Afghanistan’s future.
But some young Afghans support his populist views of a new Afghanistan where corruption is punished and former warlords, now in government, are sent to jail.
“He is a great man,” 21-year-old Farid Ahmadi said of Bashardost. “He is for the poor people. He is brave.”
© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service
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