Ramzan Bashardost drives a beat-up black 1991 Suzuki with a cracked windshield and often sleeps in a tent—habits hardly befitting a respected member of parliament.
His relatives think he is crazy. But Bashardost, 46, now running for president, said he is making a point against persistent corruption in the Afghan government. He said he has turned down free land and fancy vehicles offered to officials. He even rejected a free couch.
Even more disturbing, the beneficiaries of this corruption are old-time warlords and faction leaders responsible for past atrocities. Today, they operate with impunity, even over acts of violence and attempted murder. Many public officials, from police chiefs to governors to ministers, have acquired multi-million dollar fortunes in office.
"In the Afghan administration now, money is the law," said Bashardost, the former planning minister. "When you have money here, you can do anything. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where corruption is legal."
Not exactly legal, but definitely rampant. Increasingly, corruption is driving a wedge between the government and the Afghan people, who are growing more and more resentful of their leaders, experts say. And that poses an enormous challenge for President Hamid Karzai and the U.S.- and NATO-led forces intensifying their efforts to defeat a Taliban-led insurgency.
Corruption is turning more people toward the fundamentalist Taliban, which is seen as clean in comparison.
The Taliban may be remembered for its harsh rule, but it also is remembered for enforcing that harsh rule. No one took bribes. Most of the country was secure. Taming corruption is seen as crucial to the nation's future, but despite Karzai's pledge to fight it, little has changed in recent years.
Graft extends from low-level police officers, who make $100 a month and take bribes to be able to afford food and rent, to the highest level of government officials, experts say. Top officials, from the defense minister to Karzai's brothers to the former attorney general, have been accused of corruption.
But no one has faced serious criminal charges, and the country's anti-corruption bureau was shut down four months ago. A new anti-corruption commission, the High Office of Oversight & Anti-Corruption, includes representatives from several law-enforcement bodies and supposedly has more power. On Sunday, Karzai's office announced he would chair a regular monthly meeting of the commission.
Bribes here are called shirini, which means "sweets" in the Afghan language of Dari. Most interactions with the government require shirini — getting a new driver's license quickly costs $100 to $160, Afghans say. Even to pay a water or electricity bill, a customer has to hand over a bribe.
"Everything comes with a bribe," said Javed, 25, a truck driver who, like many Afghans, has no last name. "Otherwise, nothing in Kabul works."
Prisoners say they don't have defense lawyers—they have brokers, who help negotiate bribes. Izzatullah Wasifi, the former head of the anti-corruption and bribery bureau who also once was the governor of Farah province, said the former police chief there told him that he paid $100,000 for the post, which was considered lucrative because of all the bribes pouring in.
"In the beginning with the Taliban, if somebody dropped $1 million on the street, nobody would grab it," Wasifi said. "That's why people miss the Taliban."
In a survey released last month, the Asia Foundation said Afghans are increasingly pessimistic about their country, and corruption was cited as one of the top challenges. The head of the UN here said in August that corruption was endemic.
A 2007 survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan said the average Afghan household pays an estimated $100 in petty bribes every year—even though 70 percent of the families in Afghanistan live on less than $1 a day.
And that does not include the aid money siphoned off, or the lucrative international contracts handed out to friends and relatives by government officials.
"There's not a political decision to fight corruption," Bashardost said. "That's the problem. And why not? The officials' friends, their families, are involved in corruption. A politician here will sell his own mother for $1,000."
Bashardost, who has little chance of becoming president because he does not have powerful backers, holds court daily in a tent across from parliament. A high school student complained recently that even his teachers asked for bribes.
"If I don't give them money, they fail me," said Abdul Naser, 17.
In Afghanistan, no one seems to be clean. Wasifi, a childhood friend of Karzai's who has a good reputation for fighting corruption, is controversial for spending almost four years in a U.S. prison in the late 1980s on drug-trafficking charges, which he refers to as "my stupidity, wrong crowd."
Wasifi said the anti-corruption bureau once had 380 employees, but that number was reduced to 141 and the provincial offices were closed. Still, he said he had sent 174 major cases of corruption to the attorney general's office. None of the cases went far.
One man, Azizullah Rozi, in charge of the petroleum and gas department under the Commerce Ministry, was sent to jail for three months. But now he is back at work.
"I was not accused of being corrupt, I was accused of misusing money," said Rozi, adding that prosecutors were now monitoring his office. "I told them if they find any proof I am corrupt or my department is corrupt, I will shoot myself or hang myself."
And that maybe is the point—here, in the seven years since the Taliban regime was driven out, no one thinks they are doing anything wrong. Instead, everyone points fingers at one another.
"Government officials say: 'OK. This government could collapse soon,' " said prisoner Abdul Rahman, 58, who said he was sentenced to 12 years after he refused to pay a $16,000 bribe to a judge. " 'Let's make as much money as we can while we can. Let's stuff our pockets.'"