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Karzai confirms he intervened to get arrested official released

By Tom Cohen, CNN
Aghanistan President Hamid Karzai says he "intervened very strongly" in the release of a security official.
Aghanistan President Hamid Karzai says he "intervened very strongly" in the release of a security official.
  • NEW: Karzai says private security companies hindering Afghan security efforts
  • NEW: U.S. senator sees progress on the ground in Afghanistan
  • Afghan leader helped free official detained on allegations of corruption
  • Karzai says he'll announce new oversight of anti-corruption efforts Monday

Washington (CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed Sunday that he engineered the release of a security official arrested on suspicion of corruption, bolstering the perception by many that he is unwilling to confront a major problem in his country.

His comments on the ABC program "This Week" followed a statement by Karzai last week that he would allow two special anti-corruption units set up with U.S. help and participation to operate without interference.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who met with Karzai last week, said the Afghan president told him he supported the work of the anti-corruption units and would let them work unimpeded.

"For the first time, the president has publicly committed to proceeding forward with the major crimes unit investigations and done so with a guarantee that it will be free from political influence," Kerry told CNN after his talks with Karzai.

Asked whether he believed Karzai's promise, Kerry told CNN, "In the end, the test will be what the government of Afghanistan does itself to assume those responsibilities. ... Let's just see over these next weeks that the actions speak louder than words."

Karzai said Sunday that he would announce on Monday "a new instruction to bring these two bodies in accordance with Afghan laws and within the sovereignty of the Afghan state."

"The bodies will stay to work, but they should be within the confines of the Afghan law, within the confines of the Afghan penal code, and within respect of human rights and should be sovereign Afghan bodies, not run or paid by any outside entities," Karzai said.

The Major Crimes Task Force and Sensitive Investigative Unit, both include U.S. law enforcement members, have been criticized by Karzai for allegedly abusing the rights of a top government official arrested on corruption charges.

Karzai said he "intervened very strongly" in the case of Mohammad Zia Salehi because "this man was taken out of his house in the middle of the night by 30 Kalashnikov-toting masked men in the name of Afghan law enforcement."

"This is exactly reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union where people were taken away from their homes by armed people in the name of the state and thrown into obscure prisons in some sort of kangaroo courts," Karzai said. "It reminds the Afghan people of those days with immense fear."

An investigation of the Salehi case continues, Karzai said, adding that "corruption should be handled most effectively and dedicatedly and with a lot of pressure, but it has to be across the board and apolitical and without vested foreign interest."

Critics of Karzai have said he is an untrustworthy partner for the United States in its military campaign intended to help Afghanistan develop a stable, democratic government that denies terrorist groups a base of operations.

However, U.S. officials recognize Karzai is the elected leader of the country in voting held with huge American assistance, and therefore they must work with him in trying to wipe out the Taliban insurgency.

"He needs to fight corruption," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" after a recent trip to Afghanistan. "We have three major cases brewing from the major crimes task force, kind of, 'The Untouchables' in Afghanistan. He cannot interfere with those cases."

Graham said Karzai also needs to fully commit to war with the Taliban and to rally his people behind him.

"I think he's capable of doing that," Graham said. "But I'm going to make sure, from Congress's point of view, that we have benchmarks and measurements. It's now time to put him to the test. It's now time to put our selves to the test, because we're running out of time here at home."

On the same program, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, acknowledged that Karzaihas a difficult job in trying to bring together Afghanistan's tribal-based society for a common cause.

"I think he's in a very, very difficult position," Petraeus said in an interview recorded earlier. "Again, this is Afghanistan. And this is a country that is not a developed country. It has a checkered past when it comes to issues such as corruption. I don't think that anyone, again, has alleged that he is party to any of that."

Karzai made clear that he wants private security contractors, such as the 26,000 personnel working under U.S. contracts, to either join Afghan security forces or get out. He announced a four-month deadline for the transition last week, prompting Pentagon officials to respond the timeline was too tight.

The security companies are involved in corruption, harassing civilians and, in some cases, working with terrorist groups on the side, Karzai complained Sunday.

"Their presence is preventing the growth and the development of the Afghan Security Forces, especially the police force because 40,000, 50,000 people are given more salaries than the Afghan police," he said of the private contractors. "Why would an Afghan young man come to the police if he can get a job in a security firm, have a lot of leeway and without any discipline? So naturally, our security forces will find it difficult to grow. In order for security forces to grow, these groups must be disbanded."

In a direct appeal to U.S. taxpayers, Karzai said they should "not allow their hard-earned money to be wasted on groups that are not only providing lots of inconveniences to the Afghan people, but actually are ... in contract with Mafia-like groups and perhaps also funding militants and insurgents and terrorists through those firms."

Both Kerry and Petraeus acknowledged problems existed with some contractors and said the United States should work with Karzai on the matter.

"It's incumbent on us to help with this, to ensure that our money is not undermining our very efforts by ending up in the pockets of those who are not inclusive -- they are exclusive -- when it comes to the way that they're carrying out their activities in various communities," Petraeus said.

U.S. forces are scheduled to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in August 2011 under a timetable set by President Barack Obama last December when he announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops there.

While U.S. officials and military leaders stress the drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground, Graham and other Republicans have criticized Obama for announcing a date to begin reducing forces.

However, Graham said Sunday that his latest trip convinced him that some of areas of Afghanistan will be stable enough to move out U.S. forces by next August.

"I see progress I had not seen before," Graham said, later adding: "I do see a path forward next summer to transition in certain areas of Afghanistan, but we will need substantial troops well past July of 2011 to get this right."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq in the administration of President George W. Bush, told CNN that a successful conclusion in Afghanistan requires ending al Qaeda sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, establishing an effective working relationship with Karzai and working with tribal groups to build trust.

"I believe that without dealing with these three elements, success will be very difficult, especially given the demanding time line that the president has put in" for starting to withdraw forces, Khalilzad said.

Or as Petraeus put it in his CBS interview: "There's nothing easy about anything in Afghanistan."