Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Karzai rejected US request to replace minister

AP, WASHINGTON

Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to remove a former warlord from atop the energy and water ministry despite US pressure to oust the minister because they considered him corrupt and ineffective.

Secret diplomatic records posted on WikiLeaks showed the minister — privately termed “the worst” by US officials — kept his perch at an agency that controls US$2 billion in US and allied projects.

The refusal to remove the official despite threats to end US aid highlights how little influence the US has over the Afghan leader on pressing issues such as corruption.

Reining in graft is seen as vital to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

US President Barack Obama last month cited an urgent need for political and economic progress even as military successes have blunted the insurgency in some regions.

The US State Department correspondence was written as Karzai was assembling a Cabinet shortly after his 2009 re-election.

However, US aid to Afghanistan has continued despite the dispute over the former warlord, Ismail Khan, in December 2009.

US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry pressured Karzai to remove Khan, a once powerful mujahedeen commander, from the top of the energy and water ministry, according to two State Department reports written at the time by US embassy officials in Kabul. They were disclosed last month by WikiLeaks.

A Dec. 19, 2009, memorandum distributed internally under Eikenberry’s name described Khan as “the worst of Karzai’s choices” for Cabinet members.

“This former warlord is known for his corruption and ineffectiveness at the energy ministry,” the memo said.

Even with US threats to withhold aid, Karzai rejected requests to replace Khan.

“Our repeated interventions directly with Karzai ... did not overcome Karzai’s deeply personal bonds with Khan,” one of the reports said.

Asked earlier last year about the corruption allegations, Khan did not respond directly to a reporter’s question asking whether he was profiting personally from the ministry. He denied any widespread problems of corruption or mismanagement.

“No money is missing from the ministry,” he said. “All the income goes directly to the bank.”

Khan said he was unaware of any complaints against him or the ministry.

“If there have been complaints, nobody has come to me to tell me,” he said.

The US continued pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into new energy and water projects that the ministry used to help generate tens of millions in customer fees. Many of those fees are lost each year partly due to corruption, according to US-funded reviews of the ministry’s operations.

The US diplomatic cables do not outline specific graft accusations against Khan, but detail several days of back-and-forth and consternation over Karzai’s decision to keep him. US officials have declined to comment on issues described in the WikiLeaks-released cables and criticized the group for making them public.

Karzai told US officials in a Dec. 14, 2009, meeting that Khan remained his choice for energy minister. Karzai said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed after Karzai had said he would appoint “competent deputy ministers” under Khan.

Eikenberry disputed that. He said keeping Khan in the post could jeopardize future aid because US policy prohibits investing “in ministries not competently led” and Congress was concerned about US spending in Afghanistan.

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