World and Nation

Obama Presses Afghan Leader on Corruption

President Barack Obama on Monday admonished President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that he must take on what U.S. officials have said he avoided during his first term: the rampant corruption and drug trade that has fueled the resurgence of the Taliban.

As Karzai was officially declared the winner of the disputed presidential election, Obama placed a congratulatory call in which he asked for a “new chapter” in the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

What he is seeking, Obama told reporters afterward, is “a sense on the part of Karzai that, after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, that in fact he’s going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community’s interest in his country to initiate reforms internally. That has to be one of our highest priorities.”

The administration wants Karzai and the Afghan government to put into place an anti-corruption commission to establish strict accountability for government officials at the national and provincial levels, senior administration officials said Monday.

In addition, some U.S. officials and their European counterparts would like at least a few arrests of what one administration official called “the more blatantly corrupt” people in the Afghan government.

Administration officials declined to provide the names of people they wanted to see arrested and acknowledged that such arrests were a long shot. The international community’s wish list of potential defendants includes Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a suspected player in Afghanistan’s illegal opium trade; Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is accused of involvement in the killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners of war early in the Afghan conflict; and one of Karzai’s running mates, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a former defense minister who is also suspected of drug trafficking.

“A couple of high-profile heads on a platter would be nice,” said one European diplomat involved in Afghanistan. The diplomat, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

Obama administration officials have been pressing Karzai to take action against Dostum and Fahim for several months. This summer, Obama even called for an investigation of Dostum. Karzai instead allowed the general to return from exile and reinstated him to his government position, while the general endorsed Karzai and campaigned for him.

The corruption problem has surfaced repeatedly as Obama has been holding meetings to review his Afghanistan strategy, administration officials said.

“The issue of the government’s competence and legitimacy, and how that fits into our ability to succeed in Afghanistan, has been thoroughly discussed in these meetings,” a senior administration official said. “Because we’re putting American and coalition troops on the line in part to make sure the government stands and has a chance to succeed, there has to be an effort on their part to improve their effectiveness and address corruption.”