US diplomatic cables have portrayed Afghanistan as rife with corruption to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.
Details from a vast tranche of cables released by the WikiLeaks website could further erode support for the nine-year war. After applying heavy public pressure on president Hamid Karzai to fight corruption, US and Nato officials have switched to nudging him quietly so as not to undermine the government the international community is trying to strengthen as an alternative to the Taliban.
The leaked cables could also bolster the concerns of US politicians who have threatened to hold back aid until they are convinced the money will not end up lining the pockets of the political elite.
The corruption is portrayed as coming directly from the top. An August 2009 report from Kabul says Mr Karzai and his attorney general “allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court”.
Some of the corruption is believed to go on to benefit insurgent networks, according to the files. A December 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Kabul said Paktia provincial governor Jume Khan Hamdard had been accused of arresting contractors at job sites and holding them until they paid bribes. According to the communique, Hamdard also funnelled money from bribes and drug and jewel-smuggling operations to an insurgent network.
“Evidence collected in the case points to corruption involving US funds and actively undermining the Afghan government’s counter-insurgency policy,” the cable said.
Mr Karzai appears in the cables as mercurial and changeable; a June 2008 cable wonders “which Karzai would show up for the Afghan donors conference in Paris – the erratic Pashtun politician or the rational national leader”. The conference was held in September 2009.
Much of the corruption described in the cables is facilitated by Afghanistan’s largest hawala money-transfer system, New Ansari. Hawalas, which flourish in the Islamic world, are difficult to track and regulate.
“Afghanistan’s New Ansari hawala network is facilitating bribes and other wide-scale illicit cash transfers for corrupt Afghan officials and is providing illicit financial services for narco-traffickers, insurgents, and criminals through an array of front companies in Afghanistan and the UAE,” according to an October 2009 cable signed by US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
The flow of money in and out of the country also was revealed to be a serious concern for the US.