The impeachment of Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, on charges of accusing M.P.s of smuggling, began like any other. Zakhilwal patiently listened to members of Parliament ask their questions—about budget cuts, nepotism in his ministry, and tax evasion by large companies. But the one and a half hours of response time allotted to the minister ended in utter embarrassment for at least six M.P.s, dramatically highlighting a cycle of alleged parliamentary corruption that many believe has taken President Hamid Karzai’s government hostage. The revelations were unprecedented, but coming from an official who is himself under allegations of graft further throws the anti-corruption struggle into a political tit for tat without clear accountability.
The usually taciturn Zakhilwal spoke spiritedly and aggressively for the first hour of his impeachment. He explained how the talk of withdrawal by U.S. troops and their coalition partners has created an uncertain business climate. The details he presented next, however, revealed surprising stories of alleged corruption: Haji Zaher Qadeer, a former deputy speaker of the Parliament, has smuggled $269 million worth of flour from Pakistan, Zakhilwal claimed. This has cost the treasury $7.3 million, Zakhilwal declared. Haji Hamid Lali, the burly M.P. from Kandahar, asked the minister for nearly 2000 illegal vehicles to be processed, Zakhilwal alleged, and then read Lali’s written request, which specifically asked the minister to “ignore the ban” from President Karzai’s cabinet on processing the vehicles. Lalai also personally smuggles alcohol when he returns from trips abroad, the minister claimed.
“Yesterday [Lalai] called the customs official who has leaked this issue and threatened him to death,” Zakhilwal said.
Zakhilwal further exposed three other M.P.s for allegedly smuggling oil tankers and alcohol, for pressuring him into appointing their relatives as customs officials, and influencing the fate of large supply contracts. The session ended in chaos, as the accused Lalai, brandishing documents he claimed showed Zakhilwal’s corruption, demanded that his side of the story be heard. Qadeer, accused of the $269 million worth smuggling, sat there smiling quietly.
The M.P.s have denied the accusations against them.
“The minister of finance only accused those people who had requested his impeachment,” Lalai told The Daily Beast. “That’s because we have documents on his corruption—and this show was hatched up at the house of the speaker of the Parliament.”
Lalai denied trying to pressure the minister into signing an illegal document regarding the vehicles, and claimed the minister and the speaker of the Parliament had joined hands to put on such a show to shift the attention away from their own corruption.
After six M.P.s were singled out, the entire Parliament—except for four representatives—voted overwhelmingly to keep the minister of finance in his position. The move seemed to show that they appreciated the minister helping them pick out the rotten apples, says Yama Torabi, the director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan.
“But it is not few individuals—a lot of people believe the majority of the M.P.s are involved in illegitimate businesses,” says Torabi.
Torabi put equal blame on international aid and military organizations for fuelling the cycle of corruption. As much as a quarter of the M.P.s have construction or logistics companies, his research shows. They are rewarded with contracts by foreign aid and military organizations.
“Legally, the M.P.s are not allowed to run such business when in Parliament. By awarding them contracts, the international organizations completely ignore that,” Torabi adds.
While corruption has plagued the country over the past decade, it continues to spiral out of control. Integrity Watch found that Afghan citizens paid $1.25 billion in bribes in 2012. The corruption at the Parliament has come to the forefront in recent months, as officials have begun to speak up against M.P.s allegedly using the threat of impeachment as blackmail for favors.
Recently the minister of Interior complained that in his four months at the helm, he received over 15,000 requests from the M.P.s and got called to the Parliament for questioning 45 times. This is job harassment, he said. The minister of Finance said M.P.s have walked into his office with illegal demands, and have blackmailed him with “50 signatures in their pockets” calling for his impeachment if he doesn’t oblige. The running joke on the streets of Kabul is that whenever national holidays near and M.P.s are low on cash before they go home, they will be sure to impeach some ministers. Then the cash starts flowing.
“There is a crucial election coming up that needs financing and planning. There are large issues that need addressing,” a source close to the minister said. “And all the M.P.s do is harass [cabinet ministers] for personal gains.”
The recent scandal comes days after President Karzai admitted to receiving undisclosed amounts of cash that were dropped off by the CIA at his office.
With the flow of tremendous international money over the past decade, political power in Afghanistan has become intricately tied to cash. While the president uses cash to ensure his own political standing, he is wary of others gearing up to do the same, as a crucial election looms and he prepares for a political transition.
Karzai’s national-security council recently held a meeting to discuss “money being given to political parties” by ANHAM, a Dubai-based firm that recently won a contract worth as much $8.1 billion to provide food supplies for U.S. troops, palace sources say. Many senior political figures that will play an important role in the presidential elections are believed to be on board with ANHAM as consultants. Jawed Ludin, Karzai’s deputy foreign minister, recently stepped down to take up an executive position with ANHAM. Ludin has assured the president that his joining ANHAM is not to work against him, sources close to him insist.
President Karzai has exhausted his own constitutional term limits and cannot run again. But it seems he is worried about the money that such consultancies would inject into the campaign against a candidate of his choice. While he is yet to announce his support for one individual as his successor, the continuity of businesses owned by those close to him (and which have flourished during his tenure) are a major driving factor regarding who he puts his weight behind, analysts believe. For a leader heavily reliant on patronage, the continuation of such business networks means the continuity of his political relevance after he leaves the palace.
The public exposure of the allegedly corrupt M.P.s was welcomed in Kabul, but some commented that it was just a ploy by Zakhilwal to shift the conversation away from his own alleged corruption. A recent investigation by TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s largest private news channel, reveled more than $1 million in deposits into the minister’s accounts, largely “from private companies and personal figures.”
Zakhilwal, in his impeachment, denied the allegations with a bizarre and dramatic swear: “If this minister of Finance has stolen a single penny from the Afghan treasury—or I have intended to steal a single penny—may it end with the demise of my children,” he said.