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Afghanistan: It's in the Bag

The world's most corrupt nation is Somalia, according to the Berlin-based corruption watchdog organization Transparency International. Afghanistan is Number Two, but they're trying harder. Trailing Somalia, but just by a bag or two of cash, are Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma), in a second-place tie, and Iraq is in fourth place, just nickels and dimes behind the leaders.

TI ranks the countries on a 10-point scale, with 10 points for the purest and least corrupt nations, and one point for the dirtbags. No nation was totally clean in the TI assessment, but the five cleanest countries came pretty close. Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore tied for first with 9.4 scores, and Sweden and Finland each scored 9.2 for second place.

And the United States? Ooops! A wee bit of slippage there. The U.S. sleazed itself out of the 20 cleanest countries, falling to 22 in this year's rankings, no doubt thanks in part to the subprime mortgage scams, Bernie Madoff, Blago ... I could go on, but the list would be too long.

What is notable among this reporting of the lowest of the low -- the dirtiest of the dirty -- is that in the decade that will end on January 1, 2011, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, which are now two of the four most corrupt nations on the planet. Could there be a connection? In both countries, boxes and bags and even truckloads of cash, billions and billions of dollars of it, were flown in by the U.S. and Western allies and shoveled into the outstretched arms of politicians, tribal chiefs, warlords, druglords and even enemy combatants. There was little to no accountability -- billions have simply gone missing, flown out of the country and deposited into numbered bank accounts in a stable country whose name starts with S and is not Somalia. That's why it is so amusing that we are shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that Iran has been dropping the occasional bag of money in the lap of President Karzai's dour chief of staff Umar Daudzai, for sprinkling around where needed. Iran's little token gifts have totaled only around $6 million, according to the reporting done by Dexter Filkins and Alissa J. Rubin in the New York Times, which is pocket change -- just walkin' around money -- for a guy with Karzai's needs. He has a lot of folks to keep happy if he wants to remain in office, or even leave the Arg Palace standing up some day.

The Iranian aid story took on the quality of farce after the Times report was published on October 23. The Iranian government put on its best bluster act and denounced the report as false and outrageous, but just a few hours later President Karzai himself admitted the story was true, and so what? He said the bags of cash from Tehran had been arriving periodically for several years, and that President George W. Bush had been aware of it, so no biggie. He added that the U.S. and other countries have been providing cash infusions to Afghan government offices for years. The main difference, some pundits harrumphed, being accountability -- no one knows to what use the Iranian contributions are being put -- but that cleaner-than-thou posture ignores the fact that many, many more U.S. dollars have disappeared, unaccounted for, than the piddling sums Iran has chipped in over the same period of years.

Afghanistan has long operated on a cash-only basis because of the virtual non-existence of an effective banking system. Iraq had a banking system, but we knocked it down when we invaded the country in 2003. So cash was a necessity in both places, but let's not be hypocritical about how the money was spent (or stolen).

And why shouldn't Iran use cash to curry favor in Kabul? After all, unlike the U.S., Iran shares a border with Afghanistan. They live in the 'hood, and they will be there forever. Iran did not grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government that ruled much of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but they would probably be more comfortable with a government in Kabul that included the Taliban than to have a Western occupation army camped next door ad infinitum. Iran can be a key to a settlement in Afghanistan. Maybe we should encourage them to bring more cash to Kabul, so that we can bring less.