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Afghanistan: Government Working To Improve Key Customs Services, With U.S. Help

Much attention has been focused on international efforts to bolster Afghanistan's national army and national police. But as the central government in Kabul begins to extend its influence into provincial regions, another essential operation is receiving less media attention -- the work of customs agents within the Afghan Finance Ministry. From Kabul, RFE/RL reports on how the U.S. government is helping Afghan customs officials to collect revenues and deprive warlords of illicit funds from smuggling operations.

Kabul, 18 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Patrick Fine, Afghan mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), sees his work in Kabul as a partnership with the Afghan central government.

Fine is working closely with the Afghan Finance Ministry to improve its customs services and to bring about fiscal and administrative reforms. On 16 October, in one of the more visible signs of U.S. cooperation with Afghan customs agents, Fine presented the Finance Ministry with the keys to 15 new patrol trucks and three new minibuses.
"The self-reliance and also economic independence of the country is the top priority for this country. And also, the reduction of the country's dependency on foreign aid is one of the president's -- and also the present government's -- mandates."

"Afghanistan has got to extend the government's reach, and an important part of that is the customs service. It also needs to collect revenue in order to finance the operations of government. And customs, I think, accounts for about 75 percent of the revenue that the government currently has. And also, to deprive warlords and others of illicit revenue -- the illicit gains that they receive from not paying customs [duties] -- [the work of] customs [agents] really becomes an essential operation of the government. That's why we're supporting them," Fine said.

In fact, the gift is the second consignment of patrol vehicles given to the customs service by the U.S. government agency in the past six months. USAID also provided 20 pickup trucks last April.

Deputy Finance Minister Jelani Popal says the April gift gave customs agents the mobility to stop truck drivers from Pakistan who were avoiding customs taxes at the Torkham border crossing in eastern Afghanistan.

As a result, he says many more drivers now pass legally through customs houses and pay their required duties on items like textiles and livestock. He says coordination also has been enhanced at the Torkham crossing with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and with local officials from Jalalabad.

But Popal admits that increased law enforcement along the eastern transport corridor has caused some smugglers to avoid that route and, instead, enter Afghanistan at the southeastern corridor passing through Paktia Province. For that reason, Popal says many of the new patrol vehicles will be sent to customs agents in the southeastern cities of Gardez and Khost.

Popal says an additional gift of more than 30 patrol vehicles that is expected in the near future will be used to stop smugglers along other transport corridors -- notably, the southwestern route from Pakistan near Spin Boldak, the western route from Iran that passes through Herat, and northern transit routes near the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Konduz.

Popal says all of those efforts, along with the reorganization of the customs service, are helping Afghanistan to become economically self-sufficient:

"The self-reliance and also economic independence of the country is the top priority for this country. And also, the reduction of the country's dependency on foreign aid is one of the president's -- and also the present government's -- mandates. Customs organization and revenue organization is vital for economic independence," Popal said.

Popal also says that by increasing the amount of customs duties that go to the central government, warlords will be deprived of a source of income used to pay their illegal militias.

"That also has a direct link with peace and security. During the war in Afghanistan, the warlords used to have all these resources. Now when the central government creates a kind of capacity that all the resources which belong to the people of Afghanistan go to a single treasury account -- those warlords and the local militia will be deprived of resources. They will not have the same kind of resources to destabilize the country," Popal said.

Popal told RFE/RL that budget revenues for the central government already are increasing dramatically as a result of a better-organized customs service.

"We were predicting the increase in revenues in the coming one or two years. But since last year, what has happened has been a drastic increase noticed in the revenue of this country. In 1381, which is our calendar year [for 2002-2003], that revenue was $70 million. Last year, it was $209 million. This year, our target is $309 million. In five years, we have to have $1.5 billion of domestic revenues in this country to meet our ordinary budget and some of our development needs," Popal said.

The latest gift from USAID also includes 4,000 new uniforms for customs agents at Kabul International Airport, the Kabul customs house and at provincial customs centers around the country. Those uniforms will make customs officers easily identifiable to truck drivers and traders who transport goods into Afghanistan.

Popal says the names of the customs agents are clearly printed on the new uniforms, which should result in fewer bribes and other misuses of authority by customs agents.

Fine notes that developing the customs service is just one aspect of USAID investments in Afghanistan, which totaled about $1.2 billion during the past year.

The U.S. government agency also has been investing in business and financial sector development and in key infrastructure projects like electrical power generation and road construction. Fine says the goal is to help Afghan businesses to get established and to grow.

USAID also is active in social sectors -- with funds going to health services, education, and judicial system reforms. Specific projects include the building of schools, clinics, and courthouses, as well as the training of teachers, midwives, nurses, and judges.

For stories on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.