Postmedia News, August 12, 2011

Blatant corruption is a way of life in Afghanistan

About 84 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP is foreign aid yet touring this city is proof the vast majority of Afghans have not felt its benefits

By Willia Marsden

KABUL - Just off embassy row in the centre of Kabul is a neighbourhood called Sherpur. It's also spelled Sher Poor, but that's simply an irony. Because, aside from the streets, which in some places rival rutted mountain passes, there's nothing poor about Sherpur.

Behind the stone and concrete walls that frame Sherpur's neighbourhood blocks are marbled villas and mansions. They were built over the last five years by the warlords, drug traffickers, politicians, ministers, bankers and other businessman that have grown rich off the heroin trade or the billions of dollars in foreign aid that have streamed into Afghanistan since 2002.

Sometimes referred to as the "Poppy Garden," this neighbourhood is the seat of Afghanistan's power elite.

There is no mistaking the wealth, no attempt to conceal it.

Outside these bunkered homes is a different world where open sewers trickle through bombed-out neighbourhoods and destitute children play among the persistent rubble of 30 years of war.

Sherpur is the famous/infamous neighbourhood in Kabul that once was covered with the low mudbrick buildings of the poorest, and now has become the neighbourhood of the richest
Sherpur is the famous/infamous neighbourhood in Kabul that once was covered with the low mudbrick buildings of the poorest, and now has become the neighbourhood of the richest. These mansions are built by the commanders and warlords, the profiteers and opium merchants, or by speculators hoping to attract a rich international organisation as a tenant. Narcotecture is a term coined for this type of building. (Photo: Tilo Driessen / Flickr)

About 84 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP is foreign aid yet touring this city is proof the vast majority of Afghans have not felt its benefits.Few roads are paved. Many are hard-packed mud and stone or so deeply potholed they represent more of an obstacle course than a thoroughfare.

Traffic flows like water. It takes the path of least resistance. Drivers drive on the wrong side of boulevards fearlessly veering into oncoming traffic or turning the wrong way on roundabouts. The few traffic lights that exist don't work and police are too illiterate to write tickets.

The soccer stadium - where the Taliban once executed prisoners for halftime entertainment - awaits new turf and the poor gather at the nearby Shohada Cemetery to water down the dust on the graves hoping relatives or friends will pay them for their trouble.

Kabul businessman Hasib Sayed, 30, who is also Canadian with a home in Toronto, said he comes to the cemetery occasionally to hand out money.

"Corruption is part of life here," he said. "Anybody who thinks there is a fix for that I think is unrealistic. It will have its cycle and eventually go away. You have to understand that after 30 years of war these old men who run the country don't know anything else. These are not politicians. These are bullies. It will eventually come to an end and a new generation we are hoping will change things and think of the future and not just the present."

But at present, he said, "everybody is trying to milk everything to the best of their ability. It's the feeling that now is our chance, so let's make it. There is no faith in the future. It's very negative. We have to get rid of this negativity."

Sayed said he puts his hope in the emerging generation of Afghans who are well-educated and not part of the old tribal ways.

But Habib Zahori, 28, a writer, journalist and part of that new generation, disagrees.

"It is very difficult now to get rid of these warlords, these criminals," he said in an interview. "At the beginning the Afghans had a golden chance to bring these criminals to justice including the Taliban but they lost that opportunity.

"I believe this country is going toward another civil war, much bloodier and much uglier. Americans brought more weapons to this country. I believe as soon as the government collapses the army and police with divide into two factions each down the middle with one side joining the Taliban and the other side joining the warlords."

He said he expects the Americans will lose interest in Afghanistan after the 2012 presidential election.

"And if the Americans leave I don't think any other European country will stay here."

Both men are well-schooled in the ways of Afghanistan. As a teenage boy, Zahori said he was once forced to watch a Taliban execution at the soccer stadium.

"How did that make you feel? Were you shocked?

"No. I had lived through the civil war."

Corruption has crept into every corner of Afghan life. Everybody here complains about it because everybody experiences it.

A police officer seeking promotion has to bribe his superior. To finance that bribe he taxes his patrolmen who in turn tax the public. Kabul's dozens of police and army checkpoints - some mobile, others permanent - serve as bribe collection points. The money goes right up the chain of command.

Students pay bribes to gain access to the best university faculties and for the right to study abroad.

These, however, are only the fringes of a corrupt society. The real money is at the centre of power.

The Kabul Bank, which processed wages for government employees, crashed last year after about $900 billion US vanished into undocumented no-interest loans to 207 insiders. The fall almost ruined Afghanistan's struggling $12-billion economy.

Recipients of these loans reportedly included top government officials such as President Hamid Karzai's brother Mahmood Karzai. Both the bank's former executive director and its board chairmen were charged last month and another 38 people are under investigation.

The government took action only after pressure from the International Monetary Fund and members of the International Security Assistance Force. Karzai's reluctance to pursue the case probably stemmed from the fact that many of the loans went to government officials close to Karzai.

Certain businesses in Afghanistan are considered off-limits to all but a handful of insiders. Foremost among them is the fuel business. This includes securing the transportation of oil to major ISAF bases throughout the country.

To assure the deliveries remain secure a sort of oil mafia bribes insurgents not to attack these strategically important supplies. Consequently, fuel transports go virtually unmolested in this country. In this way ISAF money helps finance the insurgency.

"You don't dare touch oil unless you are one of the about four or five guys," Sayed said.

Sayed has various small businesses in Afghanistan that include a bus company that recently won a contract to operate buses in the virtual NATO city that is Kandahar Airfield.

His experience with the bus company reflects the sort of corrupt behaviour with which businessmen have to contend even in relatively small-scale contracts.

When he won the contract, he said, his competitor telephoned his employees warning them that "if they take any buses into Kandahar (the employees) will be made to disappear." A worker confirmed this story to Postmedia News.

In another case, Sayed said when he lured a key employee away from his competitor, the competitor bribed police to charge the employee with the theft of fuel and tires. The complaint was not launched in Kandahar, where the competitor alleged the crimes were committed, but in a small police station in Kabul.

"I spend an entire day in the police station trying to get him out," Sayed said. "At one point, one of the police officers took me aside and told me that my competitor had paid $6,000 bribing the police officers to arrest and imprison this employee."

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