KABUL - Afghanistan's government will push at an upcoming conference of donor countries in Chicago for Afghans to have more control over aid and security assistance spending, with a top diplomat saying Kabul should also spearhead anti-corruption efforts.
The intense focus of other countries on graft in his country in recent years had been "unhelpful", Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin said, while profligate international spending had inflated the cost of the 10-year war and reconstruction.
"I am not saying that corruption is not important. This is perhaps the most sinister enemy from within Afghanistan's democracy and Afghanistan's state-building process," Ludin told journalists at his office in Kabul on Tuesday.
"What I'm saying is it's more effective for us to be able to do it."
Afghanistan is regularly ranked as one of the most corrupt countries by the Berlin-based Transparency International, ranking ahead of only Somalia and North Korea in the graft watchdog's 2011 survey.
Ordinary Afghans complain petty official corruption and bribes permeate everything from the police force to health care and accuse President Hamid Karzai's increasingly unpopular government of turning a blind eye.
Critics of foreign spending have previously backed some Ludin's concerns, pointing to inflated salaries paid to a Afghans working for foreign organizations and warning that the country's aid-reliant economy will be unsustainable long-term, when Western backers leave.
Still, analysts say strong economic growth and effective aid projects will not be possible unless Afghanistan cracks down on corruption.
In late 2010 Afghan depositors pulled millions of dollars out of Kabul Bank, the country's biggest private financial institution, after learning that senior executives had lost $300 million, mostly in failed real estate investments in Dubai.
As Western leaders prepare to meet in Chicago in late May for a summit on future funding and support for the Afghan police and army, with officials seeking pledges of $4.1 billion, Ludin said control of spending should become more "indigenized".
Afghan officials also had a long-term goal to lift caveats agreed at a 2010 donor summit that only 50 percent of aid spending should be chandelled through Afghan institutions and only 80 percent of that be directed towards Afghan budget priorities.
"For the last 10 years ... I think there was a degree of engagement, direct intimate engagement by the international community in Afghanistan's affairs that will probably be undesirable in the future," said Ludin, the main architect of Afghan foreign policy.
As Western countries look to pull most combat troops out of the country by 2014 and donors look to pare aid accounting for more than 80 percent of the budget, the United States and the Afghan government reached agreement on Sunday on a strategic pact covering aid and ties for the next decade.
Work on a separate agreement covering a possible U.S. troop presence in the country from 2014 would also be completed within a year, Ludin said, although it was too early to say if that could include semi-permanent bases or special forces.
While the Afghan government had so far not pushed hard for more Afghan control of spending, including millions of dollars on procurement, the draft of the U.S.-Afghan deal had provisions that spending guidelines could be "shifted" depending on proper anti-corruption measures and accountability.
Ludin said Afghanized spending control would maximize the impact of donor budgets, as NATO and other international organizations such as the United Nations had a tendency to inflate prices as contractors and suppliers sought top dollar.
"This has become a bit of an unhelpful thing," he said. "On the international side it is Afghan bashing for corruption, on the Afghan side there is foreign bashing for corruption. Why don't we just focus on some best practice examples?"
Ludin said the United States government should concern itself with what he called the "big bargain", meaning that after the NATO combat exit, Afghanistan would remain a democratic and strategic U.S. ally in an otherwise turbulent region.
"My advice is that they should just leave the rest to Afghans themselves to sort out," he said. (Reuters)