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U.S. News, December 27, 2013

Corruption Plagues Afghanistan Ahead of U.S. Withdrawal

A mafia culture from the high ranks of government on down leaves locals worried about independence

By Paul D. Shinkman

Ahmed recalls driving to work through the streets of Kabul when he was stopped by a routine police checkpoint. The 33-year-old native of Kandahar moved to the capital city hoping to improve prospects for the nonprofit business he founded in his home town.

He hadn’t yet updated his driver’s license from his old address, knowing that his refusal to pay the usual bribes at the local DMV would relegate his application to a weeks-long wait, if it were processed at all.

A police officer stopped Ahmed at a checkpoint. Upon seeing he did not have up-to-date paperwork, he informed Ahmed of a new rule, requiring that he impound Ahmed’s car as punishment for six months.

Ahmed asked if there were any alternative.

“Give me 300 Afghanis,”Ahmed recalls the officer telling him, demanding a sum equivalent to about $5. Reality began to creep into Ahmed’s idealistic principles.

“I gave him the money and then I left. He laughed and said ‘Man, that’s how things work in Afghanistan, just give me money,” says Ahmed. “It’s very difficult. At every point you have to give someone money.”

Ahmed is not his real name. He asked U.S. News to protect his identity in fear of government retribution for speaking out against what has become a culture of bribery and corruption all the way up to the cabinet minister level, at least. It’s a concept that particularly stings for this man, who is trying to build a business that employs his fellow countrymen and instills in them a sense of worth.

“We’re really frustrated. On the one hand you see people who are jobless, losing jobs, poor, suffering, powerless,” he says. “Then you see those Afghans who are hurting you. Afghans are defeating your goals. They’re doing it against your goal which is helping people.”

“They don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to see that. And they’re not interested in what you’re telling them,” he says.

“Afghans see corruption as a major problem in all facets of life and at all levels of government,” stated the 2013 report, released in early December. Roughly half see corruption as a problem in their neighborhood. More see it in their daily life, and almost 60 percent experience it at the hands of local authorities.
Roughly two thirds say it is a major problem at the provincial level, and more than three quarters, 77 percent, say corruption is “a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole.”
U.S. News, Dec. 27, 2013

Afghanistan is routinely ranked among the world’s most corrupt nations, along with Syria and North Korea. A September report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction says the U.S. has no discernable plan to fight corruption in Afghanistan, following more than a decade of occupation by the U.S. military as well as leviathan assistance efforts by groups such as USAID.

High ranking officials in Afghanistan pay as much as hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars to placement officers for positions in lucrative parts of the country, according to multiple sources who spoke with U.S. News on the condition on anonymity, including former U.S. officials with experience in Afghanistan. A police chief in Kandahar, for example, or a customs official at the Pakistani border, or a Ministry of Education planner responsible for choosing the locations of new schools, all could stand to earn back exponentially more through a system of extortion carried out by their subordinates, who are all in on the scheme.

“You’re disappointed. Hopeless,” says Ahmed. “On several occasions I’ve decided I’m not going to work anymore. We’re just trying to keep it alive and do what we can, but it’s very hard, very difficult.”

On Sept. 22, 2011, almost exactly a decade after the 9/11 attacks that drew the U.S. into war in Afghanistan, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mullen was called to inform the legislative body on progress in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, which would witness the withdrawal of every single U.S. troop by the end of that year.

One point dominated the subsequent news coverage: Mullen addressed questions about growing concern about neighboring Pakistan, and its potential complicity in Islamic extremist groups operating there. He stated plainly that Pakistan’s chief spy service, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, was in league with the Haqqani Network, a notoriously brutal and deadly Islamic group allied with the Taliban.

This revelation was so significant and newsworthy that most media organizations missed another ominous warning Mullen issued that day to the branch of the U.S. government with its hands on the purse strings.

“Critical challenges plague us,” he said of the war effort in Afghanistan. “First among them, in my view, is the pernicious effort and effect of poor governance and corruption.

“Corruption makes a mockery of the rule of law. It delegitimizes the very governing institutions to which we will be transitioning authority, and it sends an aggrieved populace further into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

“If we continue to draw down forces at pace while such public and systematic corruption is left unchecked, I believe we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith.”

At best, he said, localized conflicts would erupt inside the country. At worst, the entire government could collapse, leaving the kind of numbingly violent civil war the world has already witnessed in Iraq within two years of U.S. withdrawal.

Mullen did not respond to requests for comment in time for this report. Multiple experts who spoke with U.S. News say the American government has done little to counteract the poisonous infrastructure Mullen referenced in his 2011 remarks. Instead, the rhetoric all the way up to President Barack Obama has focused on transitioning responsibility for the country’s security over to the Afghans ahead of the U.S. departure at the end of 2014.

Corruption in Afghanistan costs roughly $4 billion the government could be spending legitimately, according to a U.N. report in February.

As much as 80 percent, or possibly more, of Afghanistan’s budget comes from foreign aid. Such resources can be dangerous, particularly when a significant portion of it arrives in cash.

“It’s really important to understand that the behavior that is infuriating people on the ground level is part of a networked system that functions a lot like a mafia,” says Sarah Chayes, an expert on democracy and the rule of law in South Asia. “Money is sent upwards, protection is sent downwards.”

Chayes lived in Kandahar from 2001 to 2009 where she ran Afghan NGOs and helped form a business cooperative that could provide an alternative to the thriving opium trade. She was recruited in 2009 to serve as an adviser to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and later to Adm. Mullen. She helped craft the coalition military’s anti-corruption policy and became -- partially through her own experiences -- an expert in “kleptocracy” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she works now.

She describes a system of government in Afghanistan operating during the administration of President Hamid Karzai that was established to function similarly to how organized crime families divide up turf.

The Afghans who America and its allies brought back to form the new government were largely those who had fled the country in the early-to- mid 1990s amid the rise of the Taliban. Chayes says many of these were ousted by the Taliban for criminal, and sometimes brutal, extortion from everyday people.

“That’s why Afghans in the first place turned to the Taliban,” she says. “They wanted a government that was predictable, that provided a modicum of rule of law. And most Kandaharis I know say the Taliban was less corrupt than the Karzai government.”

“The U.S. never understood this behavior represents a security threat,” Chayes adds. “Outrage at the government drives people into the arms of the Taliban, which provides people with a way to express it.”

The State Department says corruption remains a fundamental challenge in Afghanistan, where the government has said repeatedly in international fora it is committed to increasing transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

“Corruption diminishes Afghans’ trust in government and deprives the government of revenues, as is the case with corruption at border crossings and in tax administration,” said a senior official at the State Department by email in response to questions. “We have sought to advance an anti-corruption agenda as a central part of our assistance programming.”

The official cited the massive revenues lost to corruption, and that fears concerning abandonment by international partners could force Afghans to engage in practices that allow corruption to take place.

“Corruption is holding back the Afghan economy in a number of ways,” the official said. “Investors, both foreign and domestic, are hesitant to risk their money without some confidence that their rights will be protected. Government resources, that could be used to provide services and build infrastructure, are stolen. The Afghan banking system’s ability to do business with the broader international financial community will be limited without a good anti-money laundering law.”

The official says the State Department has “zero tolerance for corruption with regards to our assistance programs.” It has instilled new programs to help with this effort, such as providing direct payments to individuals through cell phones instead of in hard currency.

The State Department declined to comment further.

Yet Afghans remain increasingly concerned about corruption in their government and its future implications.

D.C.-based nonprofit The Asia Foundation has conducted an annual survey since the early years of the war in Afghanistan, measuring the fears and expectations of citizens there and their outlook for the future.

“Afghans see corruption as a major problem in all facets of life and at all levels of government,” stated the 2013 report, released in early December. Roughly half see corruption as a problem in their neighborhood. More see it in their daily life, and almost 60 percent experience it at the hands of local authorities.

Roughly two thirds say it is a major problem at the provincial level, and more than three quarters, 77 percent, say corruption is “a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole.”

Numbers have not been this high since 2006, according to the report, prior to the coalition troop surge in the late 2000s.

A September report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction faults the State Department-led presence in Afghanistan for not forming a coherent strategy for combatting corruption.

SIGAR first reported in 2010 that the U.S. had spent $50 billion for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan without a comprehensive plan for fighting institutionalized corruption. Roughly $46 billion more has been spent since then.

“The U.S. anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan are not guided by a comprehensive U.S. strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for U.S efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” the report states.

The Pentagon’s regular report to Congress shows similar shortcomings.

“The U.S. anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan are not guided by a comprehensive U.S. strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for U.S efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” according to November’s Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.

It later states, “The Afghan government’s counter-corruption efforts have shown no substantial progress, apart from the public acknowledgement that large-scale corruption exists.”

It’s important to remember the solution does not necessarily lie in the absence of corruption. The same index that ranked Afghanistan worst in corruption also listed 18 countries above the United States. Israel is ranked 36th and South Korea is 46th, though all of these nations remain relatively functional.

The problem lies in whether there is any “organic institution” that can help combat it.

“There will be very different times after the U.S. and NATO troop drawdowns,” says Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general and ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. “We don’t know what organic government, security or the economy looks like without massive levels of international aid and assistance - but we will soon find out.”

For Ahmed in Kabul, there are few alternatives now. Reporting corruption on the streets won’t make a difference, he says. In fact, it will likely create further problems.

“They’d say, ‘He didn’t ask you for that much. It’s only 300 Afghanis,’” he says. “You’re never sure what you’re going to get with [reporting corruption]. And you’re sure that guy is going to come back at you for revenge or something.

“You don’t want to create problems for five dollars.”

Ahmed blames Karzai and the international coalition that supports him. As for what’s next, he points only to hopes of an Afghanistan that isn’t entirely controlled by outside forces.

“I don’t think the international community is in a position right now where they can stop it,” he says. “Unless an entirely new government comes: A new president, and a new cabinet and they’re furious about stopping corruption and they take extreme measures.”

“We don’t expect that dramatic change to happen.”

Category: Corruption - Views: 4492