KABUL — President Hamid Karzai vowed Tuesday that he would clean up his government in his second five-year term, but U.S. officials are worried that the Afghan leader will have to award key posts to ethnic warlords and regional power barons who are linked to drug trafficking in exchange for their help in his re-election.
The U.S. concerns were heightened by the return from Turkey late Monday of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former communist general and a leader of the ethnic Uzbek minority who's alleged to have allowed the 2001 killing of as many as 2,000 Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners, then having their mass graves dug up and their remains hidden in 2008.
Dostum, who left for Turkey a year ago after allegedly beating a political rival and his family, last visited Kabul four days before the Aug. 20 presidential election as part of an alleged deal to deliver the votes of his large following to Karzai. Dostum, however, quickly left again for Turkey after the U.S. complained.
U.S. officials were concerned that Dostum's return late Monday — the same day that President Barack Obama pressed Karzai in a telephone call congratulating him on his re-election to crack down on high-level corruption — was a prelude to his appointment to the Afghan leader's new Cabinet.
"Dostum came back to cash in" said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
But Karzai insisted, in his first news conference since he was certified on Monday as the winner of the election, that he'd move forcefully to eliminate corruption in his new administration.
"We have been tarnished with corruption, and we will continue to make every possible effort to wipe off this stain," Karzai said.
The Obama administration has identified corruption in the Karzai administration as a key problem undermining the eight-year-old war effort against the Taliban. Karzai has had uneasy relations with the administration, however, particularly as the Afghan president's campaign was accused of widespread voter fraud.
Many U.S. officials, Western diplomats and other experts fear that Karzai will award positions in the central and provincial governments to unsavory figures, including regional militia leaders and power brokers who oversaw the massive ballot box-stuffing on his behalf.
"I think the corruption and the failures in the system and the government cannot only be fixed through removal," Karzai said Tuesday. "There are rules, and there are regulations, and there are laws that need to be reformed."
One of the most controversial members of Karzai's new government, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, stood next to the president at the news conference. Fahim, the first vice president-elect, has been accused of war crimes and dogged by allegations that he's tied to the drug trade.
Karzai "is too beholden to these types and he doesn't see it yet in his interest to remove them and start a clean government and be a genuine partner with the international community," said Rachel Reid, who monitors Afghanistan for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
"The next few days, weeks and months are almost more important than the election itself as we see who Karzai appoints to his new government," she said. "This will send the signal of whether we see a new kind of governing, a more credible form of governing, or whether Afghanistan will continue to spiral into further corruption and insecurity."
"It's not enough to blame Karzai," Reid continued. "The U.S. and other major players in Afghanistan are complicit in this impunity culture. They have relationships with many of the most notorious former warlords, current criminals and militia leaders. They have high-level meetings with them, they use their armed gangs to guard their bases, they invite them to the White House. They, too, must clean up their act, or they don't have a leg to stand on when they come to tell Karzai to change his allegiances."