A new anti-corruption squad trained by British and American law enforcement agents will investigate high-level Afghans implicated in their country's vast criminal circles, Afghanistan's Interior Minister announced yesterday.
Nicknamed the "Afghan FBI", the task force will also investigate kidnapping and organised crime.
The UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) along with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation have already begun mentoring the new body, which includes Afghan police, prosecutors and judges who must undergo polygraph tests as part of their training and vetting. Nato will provide the unit with intelligence and, officials in Kabul hope, use its clout to stop Afghan government officials derailing cases.
The move is part of a broader Western effort to encourage good governance in Kabul. Many Afghans blame institutionalised corruption for their country's deepening insurgency, and President Hamid Karzai is under intense international pressure to begin his second term as President by cleaning up government. Gordon Brown has warned Mr Karzai that he will exhaust international patience if he fails to act as a credible partner to the West.
It is the third time that the Afghan government has formally launched a unit to tackle corruption in the past eight years. The country's first anti-corruption watchdog was disbanded after it turned out that its head had served time in jail in the United States on drugs charges.
On Sunday the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called for the launch of a major crimes tribunal and an anti-corruption commission. "We're looking to see tangible evidence that the government, led by the President but going all the way down to the local level, will be more responsive to the needs of the people," Mrs Clinton said. The US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, recently advised President Barack Obama not to deploy more US troops to Afghanistan unless President Karzai reined in the bribery and graft that have crippled his administration. He said the new plan "requires action. Words are cheap. Deeds are required."
Afghan officials have countered trenchant criticism in Washington by blaming the international community for pouring billions of dollars of aid into the shattered country without providing effective oversight.
Some anti-corruption experts in Kabul were dismayed at the call for a new watchdog, fearing that a political gesture was overwhelming carefully planned reforms. Tackling corruption took time and resources, they said, and sidelining existing organisations in order to create an illusion of progress would delay results further.
But a spokesman for the British embassy said: "There's been a lot of consultation and [the task force was] certainly not set up overnight." The existing anti-corruption body is the High Office of Oversight, set up with the support of the UN a year ago. Although it has attracted criticism for a perceived lack of independence from President Karzai, who appoints its members, Mr Eikenberry said that it had probably been the most effective law enforcement institution in Afghanistan. The office is still hiring competent staff and poring over hundreds of documents alleging corruption, and officials who have helped to set it up caution against a hasty rethink, with one saying that "it would be a real mistake to start over again". British and American lawyers are training about 50 prosecutors working with the office.
Corruption in Afghanistan is endemic, and the country has plummeted down Transparency International's index of the world's corrupt nations to fifth but last place. A number of high-profile appointees, such as President Karzai's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, are regularly linked with the country's multibillion-dollar drug trade, and government employees routinely cast a blind eye to criminal activity in return for bribes. Afghan anti-corruption officials say that petty corruption is just as corrosive: it can take a month to register a car or get a new passport.
"It's not that the system is corrupt," said one Westerner living in Kabul. "It's that corruption is the system."