Fighting the Hydra: The Battle to End Corruption in Afghanistan

Malali Bashir

Twelve years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has made visible progress on many fronts. Millions of children go to school, a network of roads now connects east to west and north to south, household income has increased, and, generally speaking, Afghans have given themselves hope and the opportunity to ensure a stable economic future utilizing vast reserves of minerals.
However, rampant corruption remains a daunting threat to the West-backed government of Hamid Karzai, and to the country. A recent survey by Afghanistan’s High Office for Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that between 2009 and 2012, the cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose to US$3.9 billion. According to this report, “In 2012, half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service” and 30 percent paid a bribe for other reasons; in total, the cost of bribery in Afghanistan amounted to twice the country’s domestic revenue.
A lot has been written about these alarming numbers and about the severity of the problem in the war-torn Afghanistan — and in most analyses, the blame for every penny of baksheesh paid has been laid at the door of the Afghan government. Far less has been written about the international community’s share of responsibility for tackling corruption and monitoring the billions of Western dollars paid to individuals, companies, and organization in grants and funds; just as little has been said about solutions to this pressing issue. Almost everybody agrees, however, that after four decades of war and conflict, Afghanistan now has a culture of corruption.
Corruption got a stranglehold on the country in 2001 when American-led coalition forces, after toppling Taliban rule, allowed warlords to become a crucial part of the Afghan government. The warlords rapidly amassed the political force to become an unofficial network of criminals who operated above the law and protected each other’s interests. Ever since, Afghanistan has ranged at the top of every list of corrupt countries in the world.
Despite the warlords’ power, Afghanistan has taken some steps to curb corruption in the public sector. Afghanistan has penned an anti-corruption law and strategy and established the HOOAC in 2008. Although it still has a long and hard way to go, the struggles to eliminate corruption are paying off. According to the UNODC/HOOAC survey, the 50 percent of Afghan citizens who paid a bribe in 2012 represented an improvement — their number was down from 59 percent in 2009.
Corruption in Afghanistan ranges from petty bribes students pay teachers for passing grades to millions of dollars paid outright to ministers, companies, and non-government agencies and wasted on inefficient contracting and procurement mechanisms. Since corruption has become a part of the social fabric, most Afghans have come to accept it as a rational means by which small functionaries supplement below-subsistence salaries, and rationalize that it is better to pay money for quick service, and even court decisions and police protection, than go without. In addition, many Afghan officials believe that Afghanistan is going to fall apart once foreign troops withdraw, so they are rushing to make as much money as possible by any means before then.
The enormous opium economy is one of the biggest sources of corruption in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzi told the National Journal that most of the money generated by the illicit trade is taken by International dealers, and a UNODC report found that opium sales generated US$18 billion for the Afghan mafia between 2002 and 2009 — a fraction of the total US$420 billion to US$460 billion it generated. Weak government organizations and widespread illiteracy are among other sources of concern. But while the international community has been very vocal in criticizing Karzai for letting his country slip into corruption, global donors must take responsibility for taking few measures to halt it. Afghans fairly charge that the international community lacks effective policing and monitoring of its distribution and contracting mechanisms.
One example of the U.S. government’s poor regulation and monitoring of its contracts was revealed in the recent report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan. “Millions of contracting dollars could be diverted to forces seeking to harm U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan and derail the multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort,” the report, “Contracting With the Enemy,” concluded.
Karzai has also accused foreigners of sabotaging his efforts to eradicate corruption. According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report, Karzai said in a televised speech in December 2012 that foreigners were responsible for a huge part of corruption in the country.
“The existence of corruption in Afghanistan is a reality; indeed, it is a bitter reality,” the president said. “[But] the corruption in our governments’ institutes, such as bribery, is a small part of the corruption. The biggest part of the corruption in our country, and that involves hundreds Aof millions dollars, does not belong to us. A huge part of the corruption is imposed on us in order to weaken our government. We are not to be blamed for that. That is not our fault.”
Talking to a gathering on Anti-Corruption Day, Karzai said that foreigners paved the way to corruption by giving lucrative contracts of millions of dollars to high-ranking Afghan officials.
According to the Corruption Perception Index of 2012 issues by Transparency International, Afghanistan is among the most corrupt countries in the world. This does not mean that the problem of corruption in Afghanistan is too big to be tackled, but so far, for whatever reason, Afghanistan has had little success in tackling graft or implementing institutional reform. Administrative system reforms should be made as soon as possible, while paying attention to the capacity building of Afghan government employees to do their work more efficiently by learning to use advanced technology and work more transparently with the new systems.
But Afghanistan cannot do it alone. It must come together with the international community to strengthen its institutions, especially its judicial system and security forces, and combat corruption — or it will haunt Afghans for generations to come.

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