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Afghanistan's Karzai Faces Pressure To Confront Corruption Menace

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under increasing Western pressure to address corruption after his reelection.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under increasing Western pressure to address corruption after his reelection.
Following President Hamid Karzai's reelection on November 2, Kabul's Arg Palace has been abuzz with activity.

Afghan politicians, tribal leaders, and supporters have been streaming to the presidential residence -- which served as the 19th- and 20th-century seat of Afghan kings -- to congratulate Karzai on his victory. As they present the president with turbans, colorful cloaks, and carpets, they also make demands and subtly remind him of his campaign promises.

Among Karzai's Western allies, however, the mood is very different. In telephone conversations, public statements, and even messages of congratulations to Karzai himself they have been calling for the Afghan president to announce a rigorous reform agenda for his second term.

In a speech in London on November 6, British Prime Minister laid it out in no uncertain terms: "Sadly, the government of Afghanistan had become a byword for corruption. And I'm not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm's way for a government that does not stand up against corruption.

"So President Karzai agreed yesterday that the first priority of his new government would be to take decisive action against corruption."

The mood in Washington is equally decisive. Speaking to a conference on November 4, top U.S. military official Admiral Mike Mullen said that the legitimacy of the Afghan government "is, at best, in question right now and, at worse, doesn't exist."

He said that Karzai must take critical steps to restore his legitimacy. "That means good governors; that means good local politicians; that means good agencies and institutions which provide for their people; and he has got to take significant steps to eliminate corruption," Mullen said.

"That means that you have to rid yourself of those who are corrupt, you have to actually arrest and prosecute them, and you have to show those visible signs. And those would be, in my view, great positive indicators to the Afghan people."

Mullen warned that "if we don't get a level of legitimacy and governance, then all the troops in the world aren't going to make any difference."

Rotten At The Top

As Afghanistan grapples with a complex insurgency that controls large swaths of territory in rural areas and mounts frequent forays into urban areas, corruption is now threatening the very foundation of the political system that was crafted and sustained with international help after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Most Afghans have personal stories of policemen or office clerks asking them for a few dollars in return for turning a blind eye to traffic violations or signing a document. But the real corruption is less evident, lurking in big reconstruction and security contracts in which influential Afghan officials and foreigners siphon off tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes and kick-backs from government revenues and international assistance.

Daoud Sultanzoy is a former airline pilot who now heads the Economic Affairs Committee in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council).

Sultanzoy says that corruption is much larger than ordinary Afghans think, that the "corruption that makes or breaks" Afghanistan is pervasive at the highest echelons of power.

"It is basically a gang who has connections to the highest places in the country and who have distributed this huge opportunity," he says.

Sultanzoy says that this opportunity "that came to the country during the past eight years was distributed among very few people in a manner that did not affect the real economy of this country and people of this country were not able to feel and touch the effects of the large sums of money and funds available for this country."

Costly Security

According to a report issued in September by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, up to one-fifth of all the reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan is spent on private security companies and militias that guard the camps and security convoys of international troops in Afghanistan.

The report, called "The Public Cost of Private Security in Afghanistan," states that such militias, acting outside the ambit of Afghan law, are often run by warlords responsible for human rights abuses in the country.

Ehsanullah Aryanzai, who heads Afghanistan's privately owned Ariana TV, agrees, saying that nobody can account for the billions of dollars in international assistance provided to the country since 2001, and he says that the way international contracts are drawn up and implemented is a key part of the corruption chain.

Aryanzai says that ending corruption and waste at the top-levels of government won't be easy. "I can't believe that the kind of plundering that began in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Bonn conference [in 2001] would end," he says.

"Unfortunately, the international community gave control of Afghanistan and its 30 million people to a few warring factions. Now most of these people consider themselves to be the owners of Afghanistan. And they do not consider themselves Afghan citizens living under the rule of law."

'Danger To The Nation'

Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy head of the newly established Afghan oversight and anticorruption agency, says that corruption is "not only a problem for the development of Afghanistan, it is a danger to the overall reconstruction and nation-building."

Ahmadi puts the focus on problematic practices, such as subcontracting.

He says big multimillion dollar reconstruction contracts are often awarded to small firms that in turn subcontract work to even smaller Afghan franchises. This, Ahmadi says, opens the door to corruption and often results in shoddy constructions, such as dysfunctional school buildings and faulty roads and bridges.

He says a new procedure has provided some checks and balances. "There are a lot of issues in our legal systems, in our systems and procedures, which provide opportunities for corruption," Ahmadi notes.

"In order to be successful in this struggle, we need to reform and simplify the laws and at the same time make sure that we educate the public about the detriments of corruption, and also make sure that if there is corruption practiced, it needs to be punished."

Ahmadi's agency is taking baby steps toward tackling corruption. For example, it recently streamlined the Afghan vehicle-registration system to make it a five-step process, replacing one that involved 51 steps and at least $400 in bribes.

The agency is now lobbying the Afghan government to compile a list of the 100 most corrupt public officials so they can be dismissed.

"There is an urgent need for the Afghan government to show that is it serious. The government, in my opinion, must commit to ensure that public office in not held by individuals who are perceived by the public to be corrupt," Ahmadi says.

"So the perception of being corrupt can also be backed by a very useful tool my office has developed since its establishment; namely, the asset registration of public officials."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.