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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Attorney General Eric Holder visited Afghanistan today on the heels of a public dispute between his Afghan counterpart and the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry. Holder praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for fighting corruption at the very time that Karzai's government is accused of protecting officials and well-connected business people accused of graft.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Kabul.

COREY FLINTOFF: The latest flap erupted in the pages of The Washington Post on Monday. It quoted unidentified American officials as saying that senior officials in the Karzai government had pressured the Afghan attorney general to refrain from prosecuting a high government official and a well-connected banker on corruption charges.

The attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Alako, called a news conference the very next day, in which he angrily denied the charges in the Post article.

MOHAMMAD ISHAQ ALAKO: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Alako denounced as baseless the claims that President Karzai had intervened in prosecutions or that the attorney general's office had delayed prosecutions for political reasons. He specifically addressed two cases that were mentioned in the Post article. The first one involved the government's former minister of Islamic affairs, who was accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from companies that arrange travel for religious pilgrims. Alako denied giving the official time and documents to flee the country.

In the second case, that of a prominent banker, Alako said there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution. Then the Afghan attorney general threw a bombshell of his own.

ISHAQ ALAKO: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: He charged that U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had pressured him to prosecute the two cases, and told Alako that he should resign if he couldn't do it. Alako accused Eikenberry of overstepping his diplomatic bounds by threatening the attorney general of a sovereign country.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the private communication between the ambassador and Alako. But a spokeswoman did say that the embassy has a strong partnership with the attorney general and his office, including robust mentoring programs. That's the situation that Attorney General Holder apparently walked into on a trip that officials say was planned well before the current flap.

Holder mentioned specifically that his meetings included President Karzai and Attorney General Alako, but Holder wasn't taking any questions about it from the news media. He did make it a point to praise Karzai for his anti-corruption efforts.

ERIC HOLDER: We applaud President Karzai for his actions and encourage him to continue his efforts, as much work remains to be done.

FLINTOFF: Some idea of the scope of the work that remains to be done emerged this month. Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that billions of dollars in cash have been flown out of the country legally through the Kabul airport, with the implication that some of it is drug money and stolen U.S. aid. Even as he praised Karzai, Holder noted that the U.S. has some very high-powered law enforcement talent in the country.

HOLDER: We have sent some of our most experienced federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents from our criminal division, the United States attorneys' offices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Marshals Service to work here with their Afghan law enforcement counterparts.

FLINTOFF: The flap over the Afghan attorney general raises the question of how far U.S. mentors can go to pressure their Afghan counterparts in the fight against corruption.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kabul.

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