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Karzai: ‘Corruption has reached its peak’ in Afghanistan

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times –

KABUL, Afghanistan — With an eye toward a major international donors conference next month, President Hamid Karzai on Thursday sought to deflect fears that billions of dollars in new aid to Afghanistan would be squandered through graft and corruption.

In a nationally televised speech to a special session of parliament, Karzai also told compatriots that though foreigners were to blame for many of the country’s problems, Afghanistan would have to stand on its own after 2014, when the NATO combat role ends.

With about $4 billion in civilian aid expected to be pledged at the July gathering in Tokyo, Karzai offered one of his most direct acknowledgements to date that graft is a pervasive fact of life in Afghanistan.

“Corruption has reached its peak in our country,” he said. “These are ills that the government must confront. … We must fight these evils together.”

Western backers have tried for years to pressure Karzai into initiating meaningful reforms, and many diplomats in Kabul remain deeply skeptical that he will follow through on his promises. At the Tokyo conference, donors are expected to press for greater accountability as a condition of continued aid.

One imminent test of Karzai’s commitment to fighting corruption will be whether anyone is held to account in the Kabul Bank scandal. The country’s biggest private financial institution teetered close to collapse in 2010 after nearly $1 billion in bad loans came to light, and those implicated in wrongdoing include members of Karzai’s family and inner circle.

In his remarks, however, Karzai singled out a former governor of the Afghan central bank, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, who fled to the United States, saying he feared for his life after trying to investigate the involvement of high-ranking officials in the bank scandal. Karzai demanded that Fitrat be returned to Afghanistan for trial.

The Afghan leader also denounced warlord figures — “those who resort to power and the gun” — for blocking efforts at reform. His relationship with at least one such strongman, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has lately flared into enmity, but many political observers believe that is primarily because Dostum has emerged as a main rival for power when Karzai’s term ends in 2014.

The president has promised to step down after his two terms, in accordance with the constitution, but he is expected to try to exert substantial influence over who succeeds him.

Somewhat unusually, Karzai also acknowledged his own propensity for deal-making, the major means by which he has remained in power. But he suggested that his tactics had been meant to hold the government and country together.

“I have been accused of making deals,” he said. “I have sometimes compromised … but no more. I will bring reforms.”

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