A top national security aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai was arrested last week on bribery charges —then released the same day “at the direction of the palace,” a senior U.S. official tells NBC News.
The handling of the case of Mohamed Zia Salehi, the chief administrator of Karzai’s national security council, has infuriated U.S. officials and raised new questions about Karzai’s commitment to cracking down on corruption within his government.
After the arrest and release of Salehi, Karzai retaliated by ordering an investigation of two U.S.-financed Afghan anti-corruption units, one of which had developed the case against the national security official. Karzai’s office said in a statement that he was concerned that the anti-corruption units – known as the Sensitive Investigation Unit and the Major Crimes Task Force – were violating “human rights principles.”
The case against Salehi was viewed as especially sensitive among U.S. officials because it reached directly into Karzai’s palace.
Months ago, sources tell NBC News, the Sensitive Investigations Unit, working with U.S. investigators, developed what U.S. officials considered “rock solid evidence” against Salehi. The national security aide was caught on secret wiretaps agreeing to accept a bribe from the deputy director of an Afghan financial company. In exchange, Salehi agreed to use his influence to help quash an investigation of an Afghan “hawala” dealer suspected of moving cash for drug traffickers.
U.S. law enforcement officials considered the case so important that top Obama administration officials – including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eickenberry and Attorney General Eric Holder— have pressed Afghan Attorney General Mohammed Isha Aloko to arrest Salehi. But when Holder visited Kabul last month, Aloko showed up 40 minutes late for their meeting and resisted moving against the Karzai aide, the official said.
Afterward, Holder was visibly disheartened, said the official. Aloko told NBC this week that he considers there to be “insufficient” evidence against Salehi but that the investigation remains open.
The case comes at a time that U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that corruption in Karzai's government is spiraling out of control. President Barack Obama's special envoy Richard Holbrooke recently testified that up to 30 percent of Afghan police salaries — paid in cash and financed with U.S tax dollars — are being stolen by their superiors. Overall, as much $1 billion a year in cash, often stuffed in suitcases, is being flown out of Afghanistan and taken to Dubai, U.S. investigators say.
The issue of corruption has become so sensitive that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed release of a major report on the problem Wednesday because of fears its publication could endanger the Afghan investigators who are making the cases against Karzai's aides, NBC News has learned.