Old school mafia-style corruption in Afghanistan is like prostitution on a national level. While it is repeated as received wisdom that corruption is part of the culture, at this level the wholesale rape of the country is pure cannibalism.
Corruption is at the core of the debate at present with the culprits lined up behind President Karzai. The issue though didn't just pop up onto our radar screens. While the fraudulent elections made it an international issue, over the last five years the situation has deteriorated. The international community has watched as the problem has worsened become more and more entrenched. The blame rests not only with the Afghan president but also with the US government that has not had an effective policy, which has lead to the present environment of impunity with no recourse for the victim, no justice system to prosecute the offenders and no real political will to fight corruption.
"The new cabinet of president was not introduced as team based on a specific political agenda," Haroun Mir, co-founder and Director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). The ministers are appointed based on rewards that the president had promised during his campaign for various power brokers. Seventeen ministers were rejected by the Afghan parliament in the initial cabinet which was introduced a few weeks ago and now the risk that the new cabinet might not be able to win confidence vote are indications that Afghans don't approve president Karzai's cabinet. Therefore, we don't expect radical changes in Karzai's style of leadership from what he has done in the past 8 years."
Hamid Karzai has essentially used the medieval system of fealty, suggests one American diplomat who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, to build patronage, so it is not in his interest to change the situation, as his recent cabinet appointments attest with the worst offenders remaining close to him. The way things stand it simply doesn't make sense if you are in government not to distribute land to your friends and relatives because what exists is a free for all where you get rich and become more powerful.
The US has not figured out what it is going to do. Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the American government say there should be an anti-corruption commission but have not talked to Canada, the UN, Germany, or Italy about it. Now we have this feeding frenzy. "The US and the UK have essentially said, to be honest, we don't know what it is we want we just know we want it. And this," says a senior American legal advisor, "is nothing more than a sound bite. Eight years on and the US is still devising its strategy."
There are so many anecdotes about large-scale corruption it is simply a matter of choosing the moment's favorite story. One morning one minister's went to work. A few hours later a convey exactly like his arrived at his house and was let in by the guards, who assumed he had returned early. The robbers absconded with everything - including $800,000.00 in cash that was stashed in his freezer. You have to ask where he got that money.
What is happening is affecting the average Afghan who cannot get through the day without being shaken down for money. Nothing moves in the country without someone's palm being greased. There are illegal check-points manned by the Afghan National Police and before a policeman gets his salary, it is estimated that one third of it is taken by his superiors. You can buy the position of police chief and depending on where it is physically located - a border police chief can get more money so the position costs more - depends on how much you have to pay, the figures that knock around are between $50,000 - $100,000. "You see the policemen and they are skin and bones," says the American diplomat, "but the chief of police is often like a big fat buddha."
If you go out for bread, and most Afghans do three times a day, ?you might have to pay someone money on the way. If you run a shop, you get harassed for protection money. "It is true that Afghanistan has traditionally had its share of patronage and petty corruption, but that didn't bother people so much as it does now. Now it seriously affects people's lives and annoys them. It has become blatant and shameless and quite random. For instance the fact that there are no fixed prices and that you can pay anything between ten or a thousand dollars, depending on who holds the stamp or the official form that you need. The randomness is infuriating and people are powerless against it, leaving them with a sense of injustice," says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
If you want to build a well in a village the cost could be quoted at $20,000.00, but it will end up costing $250,000 because of the multiple layer of sub-contracting, and this is because everyone has to get their cut and there is so much money sloshing around from donor countries. "You only have to look at the mob in Chicago during the 30s when the government was trying to clean it up. The parallels are similar, except in Afghanistan the government officials are corrupt all the way back to Hamid Karzai. Nobody in Kabul wants to change the mob because they are the mob.
"You can probably compare this to efforts in other countries to deal with the mafia, except that in Afghanistan there is no clear distinction between the government and the mafia, it is very much intertwined and it is difficult to know where to start. You are asking a corrupt government to reform itself," says van Bijlert. "That will not happen, unless there are very strong incentives and disincentives. And you need to have some kind of outside arbiter, someone outside the system who can monitor and somehow sanction."
Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a highly regarded international think tank, believes it has much to do with a post-Soviet hangover about how the economy is arranged. "With that comes a certain political culture that relies on graft often fuelled by mistrust and inadequate alliances," she says. "I see a lot of similarities to the USSR in the 90s. The key actors all came out of this period. What has been missing in the coverage of corruption is the nexus between power and security, security lead by the US, Nato and private military and security companies. What does it take to get a box of ammunition across Afghanistan today? You have to pay bribes all along the way and it ends up costing more that the ammunition itself. The war economy is not working to the US advantage anymore."
Rondeaux has some interesting ideas. "There are lots of people out of work so why not get them to work on the roads, which are in catastrophic shape, similar to what was done in the US during the depression. It doesn't only have to be bricklayers either, why not employ artists and writers on other projects? You have to ask, again, why is there no public works administration as there is in Canada and the US? We have departments of roads and forestry in Afghanistan, these exist in theory and are supposed to be responsible, but I have never seen them. You see lots of IT training schools in Kabul, but there is huge unemployment. There are literate and numerate women, why not teach them accountancy? You could build a whole new labour market by doing these kind of things. What if you took a block in Kabul, spoke to the elders and said our block is going to have electricity and not depend on city power (which goes out regularly). Those computers can be used for a new group of female accountants who could keep track of the electricity."
When it comes to corruption everyone knows whether it's in five or ten years people you annoy now will be around, and the international community may not be. "This makes Karzai very reluctant to alienate powerful people, itt can make his life difficult, either now or in the future. In particular because his whole way of governing is based on patronage," says van Bijlert, "Governing based on patronage does not have to be disastrous, but there needs to be some kind of minimum standards so that the people who get appointed are at least somewhat good at their jobs. And there needs to be less impunity. Not like now, where those close to the President can do whatever they want."
The problem is not just an Afghan one, and it's not just Karzai's fault alone but also the fault of the international community, and Afghans think westerners are complicit in corruption, and they are correct. It is no accident that Afghanistan has slipped to second place, only above Somalia, in Transparency International most corrupt countries table. Foreigners, either NGOs or PMCs, are complicit in the problem when they rent at vastly inflated prices the new build poppy palaces, huge gaudy villas built either from the proceeds of drugs or crime, in which to base their companies. NGOs may be very well-mening but they have not found a way to coordinate their efforts.
In late 2001 the money started coming in. First it went to the anti-Taliban resistance to help topple the Taliban regime, aid money followed soon after.
One way to rectify the situation is to implement means of prevention and prosecution along with other forms of sanctioning, including punishment. You prevent corruption by making it a lot harder to get away with. You double, triple check, then you have to prosecute, the way you do that is to have a functioning criminal justice system. You need an ethical code, followed by ethical behaviour and you need enforcement. The justice system needs the correct legal framework with capacity and knowledgeable individuals. The country needs a process that does not allow itself to be at the prevention of other people's political will from succeeding.
There are multiple ongoing investigations. None of them have however resulted in court verdicts and the government claims that many government officials have been brought to justice, but nobody to van Biljert's knowledge has seen the lists or files.
"The former Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabat, now living in Canada, was given a list of people by the president he was not allowed to touch," says the Kabul-based American legal advisor. "He wanted to get the deputy governor of Balkh (a province in the west?), but when he instructed the police to arrest him, the police refused because the governor wanted him protected."
"We also need to be able to work outside of the border with international legal assistance for asset recovery as you can't determine how much is in a bank in Istanbul or Moscow or how many houses are in the names of individuals residing on Dubai's Palm island without it. This is another requirement of UNCAC, the UN convention against crime.
"The Pashtuns put their money in Dubai. But Dubai is tightening up regulations so it's moving to Sharjah in the UAE. The Uzbeks send their money to Istanbul, and the Tajiks keep it in Moscow. Pakistan gets its cut too," says Rondeaux.
The Hawala system also complicates the already tricky situation. This is the informal money transfer network used across Afghanistan as well as many other countries, which makes tracking cash difficult. In Afghanistan you can pay not only with cash but also with bricks of heroin.
"As we speak," he continues, "there is no way to hide the identity of witnesses. Tricky when you want testimony against drug smugglers and organized crime. At present 40 percent of cases in counter narcotic tribunals [2 kilos of heroin or more] did not have any defendants. Why? They get paid off. And someone has to pay for witness relocation. Are there going to be countries that will take witnesses that are not the cleanest? "When you prosecute organized crime you put the devil on trial and you got to go to hell four your witness." famous quote
Not to mention that the capacity of prosecutors isn't up to the proper standard, "and it's not going to just take a few months to train them.What scares me is that due to international pressure someone is going to say we need results in two weeks. That's not going to happen. You can't do anything here in three months because first you have to build a relationship of trust."
Mir is no more positive on the situation as it stands now. "My own perception about the situation has worsened since November. We are witnessing powerlessly our own end. What can we do?
"The Afghan public," concludes Rondeaux, "needs to be convinced that they are getting what they paid for in blood and money." If we don't seize the moment and forge ahead the possibility that nothing will ever change looms large.
Follow Heidi Kingstone on Twitter: www.twitter.com/superlotuslane