Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai promised to crack down on corruption after being sworn in for his second term on Thursday. But his related promise to fill his cabinet with "professionals" may be what the US and other governments were most hoping to hear on the topic.
"The ministers of Afghanistan must possess integrity and be professionals serving the nation," President Karzai said in his second inaugural speech. "Those who spread corruption should be tried and prosecuted."
His speech also outlined a goal for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in providing national security within five years, providing a rough time line for a draw-down of international forces.
Foreign leaders have hammered Karzai on corruption in recent weeks – lambasting a top Karzai minister after a leak that he accepted a $30 million bribe and, in the case of US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, voicing opposition to sending additional troops.
But pushing Karzai on corruption allows foreign governments an indirect method to influence the makeup of the new cabinet – a key concern as they look for governmental partners other than Karzai to work with.
"The current pressure by the international community seems largely aimed at getting a cabinet that they are happy with and that they can show to their home audiences as a step in the right direction," says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "This is partly about not having obvious names in it that everybody recognizes – so they can come out publicly and say we welcome this cabinet."
Many of the most recognizable names in Afghan politics happen to be infamous warlords, tainted either by corruption, human rights violations, or both. Some of these figures backed Karzai during the election and there's concern that these gunmen in suits, or their deputies, could be given ministries.
Heavy reliance till now on Karzai
For years, in order to move forward on development projects, the international community has had to deal closely with Karzai and his palace advisers. That's because of the weakness of other levels of government, both in terms of leaders and their constitutional authority. According to one Western diplomat, foreign governments are now hoping to work more closely with leaders within the ministries.
But suggesting specific people for specific posts could trigger Afghan complaints of foreign domination. By focusing instead on corruption, foreign powers can put pressure on Karzai to find honest technocrats.
Foreign governments "are looking for levers, and this is one of the ones they are using. It's risky because the problems you are up against are so complicated that you have to deal with them together," says Ms. van Bijlert. "Apart from pressure, you also need a relationship of trust and cooperation."
Corruption hampers counterinsurgency
To be sure, the international community is also concerned about Afghan anger over corruption in the Karzai regime. The resulting alienation between the government and the people makes efforts at counterinsurgency much more difficult.
"It's a primary concern to improve accountability, transparency, and indeed to reduce corruption so that Afghans look at their government and see it as serving their interests," says John Dempsey, a Kabul-based legal expert with the United States Institute of Peace. "If we are sending troops to fight the insurgency – to back up a government that is deemed corrupt, self-serving, and illegitimate – then it's not worth it."
In his inaugural speech, Karzai pledged that all senior officials – especially ministers and governors – must declare and register their personal wealth. Further, the government would dismiss all employees "connected to the cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs."
He said a conference would be convened in Kabul soon to find better ways to combat corruption.
Karzai also called for "upgrading" his current anticorruption effort, known as the High Office of Oversight for the Implementation of the Anti-Corruption Strategy. (The Monitor looked at what this office has and has not achieved.)
Over the past week, various government agencies have announced the creation of new anticorruption bodies, including a special court to try senior officials, and a beefed-up criminal investigations unit. From Karzai's speech, it appears those new bodies will not replace the High Office, but instead will somehow be a part of "increasing the scope of their authority."
And Karzai pointed to the testing Sunday of some 50,000 teachers – read more in a recent Monitor story– as evidence that he is moving the bureaucracy toward greater professionalism.