08/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anti-Corruption Efforts Must Come First in Afghanistan

The World Bank and United Nations funded National Justice Program for Afghanistan announced earlier this month, designed to strengthen Afghanistan's weak judicial is a positive step in the right direction. However, without more a more targeted list of priorities, programs aimed at curbing the endemic corruption in Afghanistan will not succeed. And, as long as corruption persists at its current levels, Afghanistan is doomed to be a failed state.

According to the 2007 annual survey by the Berlin-based organization Transparency International, Afghanistan ranks 172nd out of the 180 countries surveyed. The favors of officials within the justice sector, from police officers, to prosecutors to judges are regularly for sale to the highest bidder, eroding the faith of the people in any potential fairness or justice. People from all over the country regularly report to NGOs and government offices extortion and intimidation they have suffered at the hands of corrupt judges, prosecutors and police. When the laws are unenforceable, a country breaks down quickly. When trials can be rigged, vigilantism becomes more common; when contracts can't be enforced, business and investment deals are not made; when property rights cannot be secured, violence increases while land values decrease. A corrupt society is a lawless one, and in a lawless environment, nothing works and everyone lives in fear, clinging to tribal or ethnic affiliations to protect them.

Rooting out corruption is not an easy task. The best way to attack it is to first understand its causes and the incentives that drive corrupt officials. In Afghanistan, the extent of the corruption is largely a result of poverty. Therefore, the single most effective means of eroding corruption is to increase the salaries of justice officials. At the moment, it is virtually impossible for police officers, prosecutors or judges to buy food, shelter and clothing for themselves, let alone for their families, on the $60 or less per month that they are paid. Before any other measure, the international donor community must first give people the chance to live honestly. Improved court houses, cars, trainings and other amenities will not make a difference to people who cannot achieve a basic level of sustenance without taking bribes.

Incentives, however, are not the only thing that are needed. Strong deterrence is also necessary to discourage people from corrupt activities. Amendments to the Penal Code to increase minimum sentences from two to seven years, give judge less discretion, and set mandatory minimum sentences commensurate with the amount embezzled, accepted as a bribe or otherwise misappropriated would be a positive first step in curbing the culture of corruption that currently exists. Given that enforcement of laws here is difficult, it is important that the penalties for corruption be severe enough that even the possibility of enforcement is enough to serve as a deterrent. In this way, people who follow the rules will have a chance to earn a living, and those who break them will face at least the possibility of harsh penalties.

The progress in Afghanistan is slow and sometimes there is an impulse to organize programs that serve more as photo opportunities than as truly useful training for anti-corruption officials. The most successful assistance has been long term trainings provided by the United States and other donor countries. One potentially invaluable program would be long-term training in the techniques used by the FBI and their other international counterparts etc. for Afghan officials. In this way, Afghanistan could build up a corps of well-trained, well-paid and carefully supervised officers with both the will and the skills necessary to take on this daunting problem.

In many ways, corruption is the most serious issue facing Afghanistan, as its persistence fuels all other forms of instability in the country. In order to make a real dent, the Afghan government, with the help of the international community, must focus on creating liveable wages for employees of the justice sector, legislation designed to realign incentives, and properly situated and managed investigation resources that provide empowered bodies to uncover and prosecute corrupt behavior.