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U.S. sends warning to Afghanistan, and John Kerry delivers the message

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to discuss the issue of government corruption in Afghanistan.

By Laura King and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

August 18, 2010

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington

The Obama administration on Tuesday delivered what might be its toughest warning yet to President Hamid Karzai over corruption in his government through a messenger who in the past has managed to forge a rapport with the mercurial Afghan leader in times of tension.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew in for a one-day visit to the Afghan capital that included two sessions with Karzai, whose relations with the United States have plunged to a low not seen since last summer's fraud-riddled presidential election.

Karzai and the West are in the midst of a confrontation over his efforts to assert control over two Afghan bodies set up with U.S. backing to combat high-level graft and fraud. The dispute burst into the open last month after a senior aide to Karzai was targeted in a bribery investigation.

Karzai has stopped short of trying to shut down or significantly restrict the activities of the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit. But he has hinted he may seek to do so, a prospect that has caused concern among his Western patrons that has only increased as the Karzai government has failed to live up to its frequent promises to curb corruption.

Before an evening meeting with the Afghan president, Kerry told reporters he would lay down specific benchmarks that Karzai would need to meet in order to demonstrate that he was making good-faith efforts on the issue.

Kerry also suggested that Karzai would receive a blunt message about congressional restiveness over the war, unease that is increasingly fueled by the corruption issue. A House panel is threatening to hold up $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan if the Obama administration can't provide proof that the money won't be lost to corruption and waste.

"I think President Karzai understands that this is an important moment," Kerry said. "It is going to be vital that the president lead, over these next months, a very public, tangible, accountable effort to be providing the best governance to the people."

However, Kerry also telegraphed willingness to listen to Karzai's grievances, which could help provide a face-saving way out of the impasse. He also made a point of framing the Afghan leader's objections to the work of the anti-corruption units in sympathetic terms.

Karzai has said the task forces' methods, which have included an early-morning raid on the home of the aide suspected of bribery, were a possible violation of human rights. Kerry said Karzai might have a point.

"I think in America, people would object to a 5 o'clock-in-the morning-gunpoint-arrest process," he said.

U.S. officials have been fretting over Karzai's complaints about the two anti-corruption agencies, and with elections coming in Afghanistan next month don't want a repeat of the vote fraud that rocked the presidential election a year ago.

A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said American officials were watching to see how the Karzai government deals with the case of the aide. "If the case stalls, that would set off some alarm bells," the official said.

He said the administration has had "a number of conversations" with Karzai about the upcoming elections in an effort to avoid the problems that occurred last year.

Some senior officials are saying privately that they fear their reliance on the Karzai administration could be the weakest link of their strategy to stabilize the country. Government corruption is seen as one of the most important factors driving ordinary Afghans to support the Taliban.

"Even if we have success in rolling back the militants, if the Afghans don't trust the government, it all won't work," said a second U.S. official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the newly appointed head of the international forces in the country, has hired two experts known for their strong emphasis on fighting corruption, Frederick Kagan and Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

Kerry was not acting as an envoy of the White House on the trip but had the "full backing of the administration," an aide to the senator said. Kerry met recently with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and discussed the trip at length with Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Massachusetts Democrat has had success moving the Afghan leader in the past. In October, Kerry managed to avert a crisis when Karzai balked at accepting the findings of a U.N.-backed panel that stripped him of one-third of his votes in the presidential election, depriving him of the majority he would have needed to win the balloting outright.

In marathon meetings that included long walks around the grounds of the presidential palace, Kerry talked the Afghan president into agreeing to a runoff with his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

In the end, Abdullah dropped out of the race, but Kerry's intercession was crediting with staving off a rupture between the West and Karzai that could have precipitated a chaotic domestic power struggle.

Karzai has responded to the latest contretemps by seeking to deflect attention away from corruption. Over the weekend, he urged President Obama to conduct a strategic review of how the war is being conducted, citing rising civilian casualties. His office said he also raised the topic with Kerry.

On Monday, Karzai caught Western officials by surprise with an announcement by his spokesman that private security companies operating in Afghanistan would be shut down within four months.

The Afghan president on Tuesday issued a formal decree to that effect, though it granted an exemption for private security firms that work on the premises of international installations such as embassies and nongovernmental organizations.

The timetable, if enforced, could pose enormous problems for the Western military, which uses security contractors to help guard bases and escort supply convoys.