A senior Afghan official allegedly took a $20 million bribe to steer a copper mining project to a Chinese company, a glaring example of the claims of corruption clouding the Obama administration's deliberations over expanding the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.
In Washington, two U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports said that Afghanistan's minister of mines, Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, allegedly accepted the money soon after the $3 billion contract was awarded in late 2007 to China Metallurgical Group Corp.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The payment to Adel was apparently made in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said one of the U.S. officials. Dubai, just a three-hour flight from Kabul, has long been viewed as hub for illicit cash transactions, according to an August report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The minister has denied having taken any bribes and said the contract went through all legal channels, according to Afghan state television.
Afghanistan is on the eve of a ceremony to swear President Hamid Karzai in for a second five-year term. Karzai has been under pressure from the U.S. and NATO allies to rid his government of the graft and backroom deals that turn Afghans against their public institutions and undercut the U.S. military effort there.
Arriving in Kabul on Wednesday to attend the inauguration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Karzai has a "clear window of opportunity" to show Afghans that their government will be accountable.
Karzai announced the formation of a new anti-corruption unit on Monday, but American authorities want to see action as President Barack Obama nears a decision on increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Adel had accepted a bribe of roughly $30 million. The U.S. officials who spoke to The Associated Press could not account for the differences in the reported bribe amount.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the bribe allegation is serious and should be investigated. But Kelly would not say whether the department has evidence Adel did anything wrong.
E-mails to Adel's office seeking comment on the bribery allegations were not immediately returned.
Radio and Television Afghanistan on Wednesday cited the minister as saying: "There was no corruption. This agreement was approved by the Cabinet and Mr. Karzai also was aware of it."
Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, told the AP last month that the bidding process was above board and supervised by reputable international consultants.
A spokesman for China Metallurgical, which is based in Beijing, had no comment.
The copper deposits at Aynak, a former al-Qaida stronghold southeast of Kabul, are considered to be one of the world's largest unexploited copper reserves. Mining the metal is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Afghanistan, a potential financial boon for an impoverished country mired in war.
But the decision to pick MCC for the Aynak contract over bids from competitors in the U.S., Canada and other countries has been sharply criticized by several U.S. geologists and Western businessmen who watched the process closely.
James Yeager, an American geologist who worked as an adviser to the Afghan ministry of mines, says Adel and a few handpicked aides dominated a secretive selection process that gave MCC improbably high marks over the foreign competitors.
Yeager has contended Adel and his associates shut out legal, financial and technical experts who could have helped them on the decision.
In a lengthy report Yeager wrote and distributed last month, he didn't accuse Adel or anyone else from benefiting personally by awarding the work to MCC. But the final decision, he said, was dictated by bureaucrats concerned with dollar amounts and personal preferences.
On Wednesday, Yeager said if it's proved Adel accepted a bribe, the deal with MCC should be revoked.
"This would show that Afghanistan is serious about rooting out corruption and developing their natural resources according to international standards that put social, economic, and environmental standards above (the) greed of those in power," he said.
One of the losing competitors for the contract was Hunter Dickinson, a global mining company based in Vancouver, Canada. Robert Schafer, Hunter Dickinson's chief of business development, said an Afghan official told him that its bid had been shown to the Chinese while the proposals were being evaluated.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the Chinese government instructs businesses to follow accepted standards when participating in international economic development projects.
"It's irresponsible for certain people with ulterior motives to lodge unwarranted allegations against the Chinese corporation in question," he said.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines: http://mom.gov.af/