Last fall President Obama made what may be his most agonizing decision yet, sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But now White House officials are making little secret about how exasperated they are with the erratic behavior of the country's president, Hamid Karzai. After Karzai suggested last week that he might join the Taliban if the U.S. and other Western nations keep dictating how his government should be run, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president may scrap a planned meeting between the two leaders next month. One big issue lurking behind the spat: an ever more tense confrontation regarding alleged corruption within Karzai's inner circle.
With American backing, a special anti-corruption unit of the Afghan attorney general's office has been developing cases against as many as 17 senior Afghan political figures, many of them with close ties to Karzai. One, the former mining minister, is under investigation for allegedly receiving about $10 million in kickbacks from a Chinese company that was awarded a copper concession. (The minister says he's not guilty.) But the unit's first big test case involves Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the ex-minister of the hajj and religious affairs. Karzai appointed him to the post last year as part of a deal to get support for reelection from key political figures, including Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former leader of the Northern Alliance, who also happens to be Chakari's father-in-law. Another former top Alliance official was Chakari's business partner.
Last fall two of Chakari's underlings were arrested at Kabul airport trying to smuggle $360,000--much of it stuffed in packages of sweets and cookies--through customs. Afghan anti-corruption investigators have since developed a case alleging that Chakari was getting kickbacks from travel-services companies in Dubai, inflating what it cost for Afghans to make their holy voyages to Mecca. "He was ripping off hajj pilgrims," says one Western official familiar with the case, who asked not be identified talking about the ongoing probe. (Chakari has said that he is "100percent innocent" of the allegations.)
The anti-corruption unit repeatedly sought an arrest warrant for Chakari, but Karzai and his attorney general balked. At first, officials in the A.G.'s office refused to sign a warrant. Then they signed one that was improperly worded. In the meantime, Chakari left for the United Kingdom. After repeated U.S. complaints, Afghan officials said last week that they would seek an Interpol arrest warrant for the wayward minister. A Karzai spokesman denied that the president was interfering in the case. But U.S. and Afghan officials are more and more skeptical that Karzai will ever move aggressively against allegedly corrupt associates. "Karzai knows about all these people and their corruption," a senior Afghan official, who didn't want to be named talking about the president, tells NEWSWEEK. "But he's afraid if he goes after the corrupt, he would lose his allies."