A key panel in the U.S. House of Representatives has blocked $4 billion in aid to Kabul over rising corruption fears.
The State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee said the $4 billion will be withheld until the U.S. government's audit office conducts a review of how aid money is spent in Afghanistan.
Chairwoman Nita Lowey said, "I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists."
She said she had written to the federal auditors of the Government Accountability Office asking them to audit all U.S. aid to Afghanistan from the last three years.
The block of funding will not affect U.S. military or humanitarian aid spending in Afghanistan, but could affect infrastructure projects.
One congressman on the committee, Mark Kirk, worried the move could imperil important projects such as improvements to Kandahar's electrical system, which he said is an important step to winning over area residents to the U.S. mission.
The decision to block the $4 billion came as the same subcommittee approved Washington's larger plans to spend $53 billion in foreign aid worldwide in the upcoming budget year starting October 1.
Pressure On Kabul
The blockage of funds is the strongest expression yet of U.S. lawmakers' anger with persistent reports of rampant corruption in Afghanistan despite drives to curb it.
In the latest such report, "The Washington Post" reported on June 28 that top officials in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government "have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans" and helped "the nation's elite move millions of dollars overseas."
The same day, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that more than $3 billion -- including large amounts of U.S. aid money -- had been flown out of Afghanistan in recent years.
The U.S. lawmakers' action is likely to increase pressure upon both U.S. President Barak Obama and Karzai to reign in corruption or risk seeing mounting U.S. public anger.
The congressional action on June 30 came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to discuss corruption and other issues.
"We have watched with interest from Washington the positive steps that President Karzai and his cabinet have taken to help improve governance and enforce the rule of law,” Holder told reporters in Kabul. “We applaud President Karzai for his actions and encourage him to continue his efforts as much work remains to be done."
The U.S. administration has consistently urged Karzai to make targeting corruption and Afghanistan's drug trade the priorities of his second term, saying both have helped fuel the resurgence of the Taliban.
Karzai has equally vowed to make cracking down on corruption a priority, including by strengthening the powers of investigators.
After signing a document on March 18 giving more authority to the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption, Karzai called the move “a step forward toward fighting administration corruption, bribery, and embezzlement in Afghanistan's government system.”
“This will give more power and authority to Mr. Usmani [the anticorruption commission chief] and his administration, also more authority for justice and our judicial system. We are hopeful that this will be useful and for the benefit of the Afghan people," Karzai said.
But the latest media reports suggest that despite such anticorruption drives, there is little to show corruption is actually being curbed in Kabul.
"The Washington Post" report on June 28 quotes U.S. officials as saying privately that "above a certain level, people are being very well protected."
The newspaper quotes the unnamed U.S. officials as saying "Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest, and disregard evidence."
Afghan officials say they should not bear full responsibility for corruption in their country.
Afghan Finance Minister Hazrate Omar Zakhilwal told Radio Free Afghanistan that “the international donors have the right to criticize us about aspects of corruption and other shortcomings in government, and we are responsible for addressing their concerns. But putting the burden of every single wrongdoing on the Afghan government and considering the government responsible for all factors of corruption is obviously not acceptable."
He also said that Afghan officials have been among the first to expose corruption, including the reported outflow of billions of dollars from Afghanistan in recent years.
"Regarding the case of money flowing outside Afghanistan, this is our own finding, nobody else discovered this,” Zakhilwal said. “Some $4.2 billion flowed out of the country during the last 3 1/2 years just through Kabul International Airport. This is just the sum we discovered and we think the real sum is more than this.”
Corruption in Afghanistan is thought to not only enrich powerful officials but also to weaken ordinary Afghans' trust in the central government's legitimacy and efficiency.
At the same time, there are fears that a portion of the aid money sent to Afghanistan is directly helping to fund the Taliban in the form of bribes and protection payments.
The "Global Post" reported late last year that "in Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country."
The news service noted that "virtually every project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents" as contractors pay the Taliban not to attack projects.
The report said that in some cases, projects are completed and the contractors are enriched only to see the projects later destroyed by the Taliban after the protection payment expires.