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For Kabul Voters, Corruption -- Up Close And Personal -- Is The Hot-Button Issue


A palatial home in the upscale Kabul neighborhood of Shar Por, which sprouted up on land that once belonged to the Ministry of Defense.

A palatial home in the upscale Kabul neighborhood of Shar Por, which sprouted up on land that once belonged to the Ministry of Defense.

KABUL -- On the streets of Kabul, it is never difficult to find people angry about the notorious level of corruption in the country.

Like Haroon Yakobi, who owns a small photo shop. Asked if he will vote only for a candidate who will fight corruption, he says: "Yes, of course, all the people of Afghanistan should pay attention to the fact that our last five years have been in misery. So, when they choose for the upcoming five years, people should vote carefully. They should vote for those who can take our country forward.”

Other people express similar sentiments.

“For the better future of Afghanistan, I think, it’s important that people should be elected who are not like the past ones, that day-by-day we go forward," says Mashal, who works nearby. "I think, firstly, we should have good security, that we do not engage in war anymore. And secondly, corruption should be removed. Then I think our country will flourish.”

Haroon Yakobi: "People should vote carefully."
As Kabul's residents prepare to vote in parliamentary elections on September 18, almost everyone seems to agree on one thing. They are angry over the country's high level of corruption and want to stop it. But the complaints ordinary Kabulis have are not always the same big corruption stories that reach the outside world. Those front-page stories tend to focus on abuses worth millions of dollars that are draining away the foreign aid money meant to rebuild the country.

The corruption that people here most notice, however, is that which has come to pervade every aspect of life, down to the smallest officials dealings. It is the kind that has caused Transparency International to rank Afghanistan as among the worst of 180 countries worldwide for corruption, second only to Somalia.

Disquieting Backdrop

The distrust and resentment the corruption creates makes a disquieting backdrop for the very visible progress Kabul has made in rebuilding since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The city boasts new multilevel buildings, including a shopping mall with a spacious atrium and escalators. Stores big and small line the major commercial streets.

But for every building there are rumors that this or that powerful person owns it and does so only because of his ties to the government or his abilities to pay his way around the law.

One of the most heartfelt examples is the new private residential quarter that has sprouted up on land that once belonged to the Defense Ministry. The quarter is called Shar Por. But in popular usage, the second word, "Por,” becomes "Chor," which means "stolen."

Kabulis tend to think visitors already know all about the story.

"In Shar Por area, and you know better than me about Shar Por's history, there are very shiny houses, very luxurious houses with more than 10 bedrooms, 20 bedrooms," says Farid Ahmad, who runs a real estate agency called Marco Polo. "They rent for about $30,000 or $35,000, up to $50,000 per month.”

Up-Close Corruption

Ahmad has been dealing in property sales throughout much of Afghanistan's past 30 years of upheaval, including the civil war and period of Taliban rule. But he says has never seen corruption, or popular anger over it, like it is today. And one reason is that -- like the new residential area itself -- it is so tangible, so up-close and personal.

Mashal: "Corruption should be removed."
Ahmad does not want to be the one to tell a reporter Shar Por's story. But he says that while the rich play there, ordinary people can barely afford the cost of housing, which has skyrocketed as returning refugees have poured into the city since 2001. A three-bedroom apartment that once cost $50 a month today costs $500 to $1,000, even though an ordinary government employee's monthly salary remains about $50.

To cope with the prices, the property agent says, families crowd together with ever-shrinking amounts of personal space.

"They are living with a high number of families in one building, even five, six families together," Ahmad says. "But they are not going to leave Kabul because security is better than in the provinces.”

And in Shar Por?

There, the residents bought the land for their villas for prices ordinary people can only dream about.

One Man's Story

One man who both knows the story and is not afraid to tell it is Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, who was once the government's head of urban development.

The process began when the Defense Ministry decided itself to sell off the land and initially proposed to restrict the group of potential buyers to its own members. Pashtun blocked that proposal and suggested instead that the land should either be preserved as much-needed public green space in the heart of the dusty capital or used to house public officials as they rotated in and out of office.

"I said in this place we could make up to 50 or 60 good residential villas," Pashtun says. "For example, there will be a house called the house of the minister for urban development. So whoever is appointed will take a couple of suitcases and go there and after two years or five years, when he leaves [government] he will leave with those suitcases."

Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun: "They said it was too much."
But then, Pashtun was given a new assignment as governor of Kandahar in late 2004 and had to leave Kabul. When he returned 1 1/2 years later, the land had already been sold to a highly restricted circle of the most influential people in the government. They, in turn, resold the land at huge profit to wealthy buyers who wanted to build their own private palaces.

After resuming his position as head of urban development, Pashtun tried to recover for the government something that at least approximated the market value of the land which had been sold. An investigatory commission fixed that value at about $300,000 per lot and demanded the original beneficiaries of the land grab pay.

But the reaction was disappointing.

"They said it was too much," Pashtun says. "I said, '[Don't worry about] how much it is, pay in installments.' They agreed to pay in installments, but most of those people have not paid their installments."

Pashtun, like other Afghans at all level of society, stops short of naming names when it comes to the powerful. Subsequently, he was not reappointed as head of urban development partly, he believes, due to his objection to corruption. But he remains a key technocrat in the government, currently serving as the president's senior adviser for construction, water and energy, and mines.

Legitimacy To Taliban

As voters go to the polls on September 18, they will hope that the new deputies they select will help curb the rampant growth of corruption the last nine years have seen. According to the NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the country's citizens had to pay $1 billion in bribes in 2009, twice the value of those paid in 2006.

Many analysts say the level of corruption in Afghanistan has long passed any levels where it can be sustained without becoming a threat to the future of the country itself.

Lorenzo Delesgues of Integrity Watch Afghanistan says "it reduces the legitimacy of the state. It gives more legitimacy to the Taliban." He notes that more than half of the respondents to the survey "think that the Taliban are gaining ground because of the corruption of the Afghan state."

At the same time, it is undermining confidence in democracy as a form of government that can put national interests above personal ones. A common complaint heard in Kabul today is that democracy has delivered individual freedoms, including the freedom to steal.

That, of course, is not what democracy is supposed to bring. But it will be up to the new parliament to press the government to correct that record before the September 18 elections can be judged a success.
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