- By Josh Rogin
In mid-February, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and afterwards, Karzai accused the United States of fueling Afghan corruption.
Karzai was just playing local politics, Menendez said Friday.
Karzai’s office issued a press release after their Feb. 19 meeting entitled, "President Karzai: Fight against Corruption Requires Earnest and Sincere Cooperation of the International Community, Particularly of the United States."
Reading the press release, one would think a major topic of the meeting was American contracts in Afghanistan and their contribution to corruption in that country.
"The President called awarding of contracts to relatives and affiliates of Afghan senior officials, a major source of corruption, underscoring that the United States should avoid it," the release said. "He added that contracts awarded to the senior officials’ relatives and affiliates would weaken Afghanistan’s system, making the anti-corruption campaign more susceptible to problems."
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Menendez said he was surprised when he read the press release because the issue of corruption and the influence of U.S. government contracts was not actually a major topic of his meeting with Karzai.
"In the totality of our discussion, that was not the major focus of that meeting," Menendez said.
But all politics are local, and Menendez said Karzai’s press release was probably aimed at a domestic audience, specifically a group of officials who met with Karzai before Menendez and were complaining about corruption in how U.S. contracts were being awarded to a relative of Karzai’s, Menendez said.
"President Karzai had received earlier that day a group of representatives from Kandahar who were complaining about one of his relatives and some abuse of his position vis-à-vis business interests that he was perusing. Karzai was evidently disturbed by that meeting and lashed out for a few minutes on that issue," Menendez said. "[U.S.] Ambassador [James] Cunningham was with me and didn’t even know what he was talking about on this and from what I gathered before having left the country, I’m not even sure that it is what [Karzai] suggested."
Menendez told Karzai that the United States is spending a lot of money on rule of law and governance in Afghanistan and he said it was the Afghan government’s job to put that money to good use and establish systems to combat corruption.
Menendez said he told Karzai: "I find it a little unique that whatever it is your meeting produced with those representatives from that area is more about the U.S. and less about the appropriate governance within your own structure."
Some reports last week noted the irony of Karzai’s press release, considering that Menendez himself is under FBI investigation for allegedly trying to secure favors for his friend and benefactor Salmon Melgen, including allegedly lobbying for a port security contract in the Dominican Republic in which Melgen has a financial interest.
Menendez has acknowledged he failed to report trips he took on Melgen’s plane and has since reimbursed Melgen for those costs. Menendez has denied any improper actions on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.