Afghanistan's newly unveiled anti-corruption unit drew guarded praise Monday from a wary international community, which has heard President Hamid Karzai promise before to end the graft and thievery that's bleeding his nation.
Karzai's inability or unwillingness to tackle cronyism and bribery the past five years has given Taliban insurgents another argument with which to win support from the Afghan people. Nations supplying troops and aid are running out of patience and are threatening to hinge future assistance on his government's ability to ensure accountability.
"Words are cheap. Deeds are required," U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said at a hotel in Kabul where Afghan officials announced that they had established the Anti-Corruption Unit and Major Crime Force.
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar stressed that the international community did not force the government to set up the unit. He said Afghan officials asked the FBI, Interpol and Britain's Serious Organized Crime Agency to help establish a crime-fighting unit several months ago.
Still, the timing of Monday's announcement, just days before Karzai is inaugurated for a second five-year term following an election marred by fraud, was a clear indication that he is trying to show he's serious about battling corruption _ from influence peddling and police bribes to the failure to prosecute government officials who have profited from their positions.
"With the beginning of President Karzai's second term, there really is a powerful opportunity to strengthen the rule of law and to build an even stronger record of accountability and honesty," said Eikenberry, who has questioned the wisdom of adding U.S. forces when the Afghan political situation is unstable and uncertain.
"We must act together," Eikenberry said. "We must act quickly."
American and British officials have been particularly vocal in recent weeks in calling for Karzai to institute reforms following a messy election that took 2 1/2 months to resolve and undermined the legitimacy of a government.
In Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said it was "fundamental" that Afghanistan have a corruption-free government that would aggressively take on drug-running and other problems. But EU officials did not echo a pledge by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday to hold back civilian aid without more accountability.
Much of the development money from foreign donors is funneled through Afghan ministries in an attempt to strengthen the government, but donors regularly complain they lose control of funds once they go into a ministry and often have no way or right to track their use.
Joining top Afghan law enforcement and judicial officials at a news conference, Eikenberry and British Ambassador Mark Sedwill pledged their support for the unit. They lauded Afghan civilian servants, including those at the Counternarcotics Justice Task Force, who are working _ sometimes at risk to their own safety _ to rid the government of corruption.
The Afghans boasted that they have actively reassigned poorly qualified judges to administrative positions, arrested several hundred people for narcotics offenses in the past year, and removed dozens of corrupt police officers from the force. They talked with enthusiasm about starting a new chapter in the Afghan government.
"For the people involved in corruption _ that time is over now," said Atmar, the interior minister.
"Corruption is the cancer that is destroying the lives of the people," said Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish.
But there was reason for guarded optimism about the unit, which along with the ministers of interior and justice is being overseen by the national security director, attorney general and chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court.
This is the third formal launch of a crime-fighting unit promising to tackle corruption.
The country's first anti-corruption body was disbanded after it became known that its head had been convicted and imprisoned on drug charges in the United States. A second anti-corruption office was launched last year with a media blitz, promises of high-level trials and the firing of dozens of judges.
More than a year later, Afghans continue to list government corruption as one of their biggest problems, and officials said the judicial graft that the 2008 commission targeted remains one of the key problems the new body will have to tackle.
Transparency International, a non-governmental organization, last year ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries on its corruption perceptions index, a poll that assesses the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. Only Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia were worse.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.