There has been a growing level of public consternation and renewed calls to combat corruption in Afghanistan. Everyone talks about the need to tackle it. However, few offer a realistic pathway or understand the complexity of the challenges that must be overcome to counter systemic corruption.
Political will to fight corruption must be underpinned by an adequate legal and institutional framework to translate it into tangible actions and specific anti-corruption measures. In a country where the Constitution forbids nepotism, but the penal code fails to stipulate a clear punishment for those who commit it, or when the Constitution calls for assets disclosure of public officials but there is no mechanism for penalizing those who do not wish to comply, you will need to strengthen and improve laws and institutional capabilities.
Important steps have already been taken in the last one year to establish institutions responsible to prevent and combat corruption. To make these bodies effective, you will need to provide them with the necessary resources and means, chief among them are independence, empowerment, training and incentives.
A corrupting drug economy, weak institutions, insufficient legal and institutional enablers, red-tape, influx of aid money and inadequate accountability and oversight are responsible for the increasing corruption. A less conspicuous and fundamental reason is that people do not have confidence for their future. An increasing level of insecurity, a growing insurgency and the perceived faltering of the international community's resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan, have created a sense of uncertainty and a resulting short-term horizon (make hay while the sun shines) in the mind of a nervous citizenry.
In such circumstances, public official sees public office as an instrument of short-cut enrichment and gaining the means to survive in case something disastrous happens in the country. A private business does not have the mind of an investor interested in using its capital resources for maximum productivity and growth, increasing its capital and expanding its business but of a mere contractor or broker, interested only in short-term benefit and making easy and quick money. A couple of payments or kickbacks here or there will be just fine as long as the firm gets the contract. The environment, in such circumstances, is very conducive to corruption, collusion, bid-rigging and development of cartels.
Therefore, fighting corruption will also depend on improvement in the overall security and stability situation and a general sense that the country is on a secure trajectory. Afghans need to have the sense that there is no return to the violent miseries of the past, that slow but sure improvement is happening in their livelihoods and that the international community will remain a reliable partner for the long-term.
Our approach to fighting corruption in Afghanistan must also be multifaceted. A simple example might be helpful in illustrating what I mean. My office recently carried out a pilot reform of the vehicle registration process. We found out that it takes more than a month, 51 steps and signatures and on average 400 to 500 dollars in illicit payments for an Afghan to be able to register his vehicle. Hardly surprisingly, car owners preferred to bribe traffic police on the streets on a daily basis instead of going through the ordeal of registering their cars. Thousands were disenchanted at the government and the government lost much needed revenue as a result. We simplified the process, cutting the time it takes to register a vehicle to 3 days and 5 steps through the introduction of a "form," direct payment of the legal fees to the banks, and cutting off direct contact between car owners and officials.
We could have imprisoned all the staff of the car registration unit and replaced them with new people. The system, supported by an outdated legal framework that had to scrapped, was so designed that the newly appointed staff would have inevitably engaged in corruption. While it is important to ensure that people have the fear of getting caught and punished for corrupt behavior, it is also crucial to streamline processes, reform laws and minimize opportunities for corruption.
Equally important, the media, civil society and the private sector must be encouraged to take part in this national struggle. Public officials must also be provided with the right incentives and disincentives to behave with integrity.
The newly-elected government with the renewed commitment of the United States and other countries to partner with Afghanistan, offers an unprecedented opportunity to intensify the fight against corruption. The current blame game of "You are corrupt!" "Yes, but you are also corrupt!" has to end. The Afghan government and the international community must strive to build their moral authority. They should commit to work together constructively through the establishment of an anti-corruption compact. The compact must include the following, among others:
- The Afghan government must take urgent measures to improve and strengthen the legal, penal and institutional framework to fight corruption in the country. The nascent anti-corruption institutions must be empowered and supported with resources and means and their independence must be ensured in a way to prevent any sort of undue influence in their operations.
- The international community must take concrete measures to address the genuine concerns of the Afghan people in regard to their faulty and corrupt contracting mechanisms and wasteful practices. As the main and largest donor to Afghanistan, the United States must show its commitment to preventing corruption in its aid to Afghanistan. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) must be empowered with the means to enable it to fulfill its crucial mandate. As a strong message to the Afghan people, a good start can be a review of the military contracting mechanism at Bagram Airbase and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and a review of local security contracts and the disclosure of its outcome to the public. A key question for the Afghan public is who benefits from these contracts and how?
- Corruption of grand nature mostly involves a willing taker and a willing giver and happens in total secrecy, thus making gathering of evidence, detection and prosecution of corruption cases very difficult. Nobody will volunteer to declare he got a bribe or paid one. The Afghan institutions responsible for detection and punishment of corruption need time to build their capabilities. On the other hand, there is an urgent need for Afghan government to show that it is serious. In the compact, the government must commit to ensure that public office is not held by individuals who are perceived by the public to be corrupt. It must identify the top 100 most corrupt individuals in the public service and dismiss them. The perception of being corrupt can be backed by a very useful tool my office has developed since its establishment, namely the asset registration of public officials. If officials are perceived to be corrupt, if their level of income is not proportionate to their lifestyle and if they cannot explain the source of their existing wealth, public service must not be where they hold senior office.
Ershad Ahmadi is the deputy head of the newly-established High Office of Oversight & Anti-Corruption in Afghanistan.