US & World

Holder Visits Afghanistan Amid Corruption-Fight Flap

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder holds a news conference Wednesday in Kabul. Holder was in the Afghan capital to talk to officials about improving the justice system and fighting corruption.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder holds a news conference Wednesday in Kabul. Holder was in the Afghan capital to talk to officials about improving the justice system and fighting corruption.
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. attorney general praised the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership, despite allegations that the Afghan attorney general attempted to cover up corruption. The Afghan official, Mohammad Ishaq Alako, has denied the claims and accused the U.S. envoy in Kabul of threatening him.

Attorney General Eric Holder visited Kabul on Wednesday amid allegations of high-level corruption in the Afghan government, and a messy public dispute between his Afghan counterpart and the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry.

The flap raises questions about how far U.S. officials can go to pressure the Afghan government to combat corruption.

Holder praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his efforts to fight corruption at the very time that Karzai's government is accused of protecting officials and well-connected business people accused of graft.

The latest controversy erupted in the pages of The Washington Post on Monday. The story quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that senior officials in the Karzai government had pressured the Afghan attorney general to refrain from prosecuting a high-level government official and a well-connected banker on corruption charges.

The attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Alako, called a news conference on Tuesday in which he angrily denied the charges in the article. Alako denounced as "baseless" the claims that Karzai had intervened in prosecutions, or that the Afghan attorney general's office had delayed prosecutions for political reasons.

He specifically addressed two cases that were mentioned in the Post article. The first involved the government's former minister of Islamic affairs, who fled the country after he was accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from companies that arrange travel for religious pilgrims.

Alako denied giving the official documents that allowed him to flee the country, despite a travel ban.

In the second case, that of a prominent banker, Alako said there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution.

Then the Afghan attorney general threw a bombshell of his own. He said that Eikenberry, the U.S. envoy, had pressured him to prosecute the two cases, and told Alako that he should resign if he couldn't do it.

Alako accused Eikenberry of overstepping his diplomatic bounds by threatening the attorney general of a sovereign country.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the private communications between the ambassador and Alako. An embassy spokeswoman said that the embassy has a strong partnership with the Afghan attorney general and his office, including robust mentoring programs.

Holder's trip to Afghanistan was planned well before the current flap.

Holder mentioned specifically that his meetings included Karzai and Alako, but Holder did not take questions from reporters about the details of their talks.

Holder praised Karzai for his anti-corruption efforts, saying, "We applaud President Karzai for his actions and encourage him to continue his efforts, as much work remains to be done."

Some idea of the scope of the work that remains emerged this month.

Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that billions of dollars in cash have been flown out of the country legally through the Kabul airport, with the implication that some of it is drug money and stolen U.S. aid.

Even as he praised Karzai, Holder noted that the U.S. has some high-power law enforcement talent in Afghanistan.

"We have sent some of our most experienced federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents from our criminal division, the U.S. attorneys' offices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service to work with their Afghan law enforcement counterpart," he said.

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