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From Words To Deeds In Afghanistan's Corruption Fight

The onus is now on Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center) to stop surrounding himself with former warlords.
The onus is now on Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center) to stop surrounding himself with former warlords.
At the height of election fever in Afghanistan this summer, a series of cleverly staged, humorous infomercials were aired on various television channels, instructing average Afghans to vote with their conscience.

One skit showed a wily vegetable vendor attempting to cheat a woman into buying rotten tomatoes. When the woman wasn't fooled, the vendor quipped, "You're great at choosing tomatoes -- now make sure you choose a good leader for us in the election."

The onus is now on President Hamid Karzai -- who assumed a second term in office by default after his chief rival withdrew from the race -- to appoint competent, reform-minded, and honest cabinet ministers and governors as a first step toward fulfilling what has unofficially been dubbed "the new compact" between the Afghan president and the international community.

Hot on the heels of congratulatory messages from the international community touting the fraud-marred Afghan elections as "free, fair, and credible" came tough warnings and ultimatums -- notably from the United States and Great Britain -- that Karzai must sideline his dirty-dealing brothers and tackle corruption.

The latest admonition has come from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, who in a leaked secret message has advised President Barack Obama not to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until Karzai demonstrates that he is tackling the corruption problem.

Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmad Wali, has been accused of drug trafficking and, most recently, of receiving regular payments from the CIA. While this has certainly dealt a further blow to the legitimacy of the Kabul government, one wonders why the CIA, a U.S. government intelligence body, has apparently kept a drug trafficker on its payroll, while the rest of the government in Washington demands that Karzai must prosecute drug barons.

With Friends Like These...

In his first press conference since he was declared the winner of the election, Karzai said the problem of corruption "cannot be solved just by changing high-ranking officials." Technically, he is right.

In the eight years since he was appointed head of the interim government at the UN-sponsored Bonn conference in December 2001, Karzai has received praise for his "heroic" and "wise" leadership. He has collected just about every prize or medal any organization or state could bestow on exemplary leadership.

As for his suddenly "unsavory" associates, there is not one on the list who has not received political and financial support from Washington. The so-called warlords and human rights abusers who are now seen as the sources of corruption in Afghanistan were, until very recently, considered trusted allies of the United States.

Moreover, there have been some high-ranking officials who were not warlords whose corruption has been an open secret among Afghans but who have received support and protection from the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

A case in point is former Transportation and Civil Aviation Minister Enayatullah Qasimi, an Afghan-American, who was indicted in 2005 by then-Afghan Attorney-General Saranwal Mahmud on 12 counts of corruption and other criminal charges. The accused fled the country and found sanctuary in the United States. When the prosecutor insisted Qasimi be extradited, he was fired.

There have also been numerous reports by well-reputed journalists and international organizations about corruption stemming from foreign aid. In addition to contracting procedures that need immediate reconsideration, there has been a tacit consent to allow ministers and governors to either indulge in percentages or grant subcontracts to their friends and relatives in exchange for their support for particular projects.

Stop Feeding The Monster

Finally, the international community has demonstrated a clearly half-hearted approach toward public-sector reform and capacity-building. The lack of coordination among donors -- leading to senseless duplications -- and supply-driven, output-oriented projects that ignore actual needs and impact have undeniably contributed to the lack of progress in establishing good governance.

One example is the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which allocates block grants to villages for infrastructure projects. Despite warnings by local consultants that the first phase of the program was flawed, the principal donor state to the NSP hired a British consultancy firm, which issued a positive evaluation, thereby fast-forwarding the program to the second phase instead of genuinely seeking corrections.

Such cavalier attitudes feed public doubts in Afghanistan about the international community's determination to effect meaningful development.

Most international donor programs fail to take into account the cultural and political dimensions of public-sector corruption. The politically driven system of patronage in recruitment and promotions stems from the survivalist mentality typical of protracted conflicts such as what Afghanistan has experienced over the last 30 years. In the post-Taliban era, this mentality has been fed by constantly shifting political alliances. Not tackling the root causes of this phenomenon has rendered textbook Western public-sector-reform efforts futile.

Bribery and embezzlement have come to be viewed by many in the Afghan elite as legitimate forms of obtaining supplemental income. But international donors have justified their failure to emphasize a responsible work ethic and serious law enforcement efforts against high-level corruption by saying the issues are "too political" or "too culturally sensitive."

Numerous administrative-reform initiatives and millions of dollars in foreign aid could have produced noticeable results had they built in strategies to alter the cultural and political dimensions of corruption.

Although the state led by Karzai for the past eight years is drowning in corruption, the Afghan president is correct to insist that merely replacing a few corrupt ministers will not rid his country of this problem. He is equally justified in resenting accusations from countries that have thus far turned a blind eye to flagrant "irregularities" on the ground.

At the same time, the international community, with over 110,000 military personnel and billions of dollars of aid committed to Afghanistan, has every right to demand -- even at this late date -- an honest fight against corruption.

But if the world wants to sound credible, it must first own up to its own failings in Afghanistan. It can then assume the moral high ground and push the Afghan government to move beyond verbal assurances.

The international community must act swiftly to impose itself as an equal stakeholder and partner in tackling corruption in Afghanistan. It must come up with intelligent strategies, accompanied by clear benchmarks and mechanisms to monitor those benchmarks every step of the way.

Helena Malikyar is an expert on Afghan state-building; Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL