Afghanistan, Corruption and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

Edward Joseph writing for the Washington Post gives us a glimpse into how some of the former anti-Soviet Mujahideen feel about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

I recently visited the exhibit during a seven-week mission to evaluate a U.S. program assisting local governments in Afghanistan. On our way out of the museum, we bumped into a prominent mujahed fighter and his entourage. When an American in our group told him that the United States would never forget the Afghan fighters’ struggle against the Soviets, he smiled and nodded proudly. “And we also can never forget your fight against the Taliban now,” the American added. With that, the mujahed’s smile vanished — and so did he, with all his people, after an awkward goodbye.

A full sixty percent of the Afghan population see the Taliban as the biggest threat to Afghanistan.  This Mujahideen can be counted as one of the irreconcilables, and Petraeus has noted that we must pursue and kill them.  But the author goes on to discuss what turns out to be an important underlying problem in Afghanistan: corruption.

Everywhere I went, people complained about corruption. “The government is corrupt from A to Z,” said a road contractor working in one of the most dangerous provinces. The pressure, he explained, begins with “suggestions” that he hire officials’ relatives and friends and rent vehicles only from certain providers; it ends with the officials telling him exactly how big a cut of his profits they’ll take to let the project continue.

This theme is so ubiquitous that it isn’t difficult to find reports of corruption.  It applies to everything in life.

When it comes to governing this violent, fractious land, everything, it seems, has its price.

Want to be a provincial police chief? It will cost you $100,000.

Want to drive a convoy of trucks loaded with fuel across the country? Be prepared to pay $6,000 per truck, so the police will not tip off the Taliban.

Need to settle a lawsuit over the ownership of your house? About $25,000, depending on the judge.

“It is very shameful, but probably I will pay the bribe,” Mohammed Naim, a young English teacher, said as he stood in front of the Secondary Courthouse in Kabul. His brother had been arrested a week before, and the police were demanding $4,000 for his release. “Everything is possible in this country now. Everything.”

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

Ubiquitous corruption is now causing a major problem in the counterinsurgency campaign.  Some of the population is beginning to contrast the massive, systemic corruption of the current regime with Taliban rule.

Some in Kabul have become nostalgic for Taliban times. “At least, with the Taliban, we had security,” one mechanic told me after we haggled over the cost of my motorcycle repair. “No one would steal my tools. Now life is dangerous, the cost of food and gas are expensive, and the government does nothing for us. They work only for themselves, because they know this won’t last” …

[Some] seem nostalgic about the Taliban government’s honesty and integrity, despite the harsh rules. One recent cartoon in The Kabul Times showed a $100 bill on a human body, pointing to an Afghan government ministry and saying, “If you need help, don’t go in there without me!”

According to one report, NGOs now dedicate an average of 7 to 8 percent of their budget to paying bribes—sometimes called “facilitation fees” or “marketing fees” on paper—many directly to government official coffers. USAID and military organizations seem able to avoid much of the corruption, but ordinary Afghans face it regularly. There are at least four phrases in Dari specifically for persons who demand bribes, my favorite being chor sat o bist, “420,” the code for corruption.

It’s not that the system is corrupt,” the U.S. State Department’s new anti-corruption director told me in September, inside a heavily guarded compound in Wazir Akbar Khan. “It’s that corruption is the system.”

Corruption undermines legitimacy of the government, especially for the poor and lower middle class.  This has been and is being exploited by the Taliban, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  The PakTribune has a remarkable anecdotal account of this kind of exploitation.  It is a lengthy account, but necessary if we wish fully to understand one of the tools that the Taliban have used to come back to power.

It was during a visit to Peshawar that I met a senior police officer. He narrated a story which was brow-raising. He told of a person from Bannu who lent Rs 40,000/ to a man he knew, who promised that he would return it within a specified time. He told the borrower that he had saved up the said amount to help pay for his children`s education. When the agreed time lapsed, he asked him to return the amount. The borrower started making excuses and after a few months he flatly refused and challenged the lender to do what ever he could. There is a Pukhtun word for it “Laas Da Azaad De”.

The man went from pillar to post to seek justice but with no result. The police proved incapable as the borrower was a powerful man with strong connections. When he tried to knock on the door of the court for justice he was dismayed to hear that it would take months for the case to come to a hearing and years to reach a final judgment. After all that, the chances were that the verdict would go against him as he was up against powerful people. To top it off, he was told he had to pay Rs. 1000/ upfront every time he wanted to put his case forward for a hearing. This amount did not include the amount he was going to pay the lawyers. When he calculated it, the approximate amount turned out to be more than the actual amount he was going to seek justice for.

At the end of every day, he would go back home heart broken; cursing his luck to be living in a country where there was no justice for the middle or poor classes. He tried to persuade the borrower by pleading with him, explaining how desperately he needed the money for his children’s education. He even offered a discount or to split the amount into installments, but all in vain. It was like hitting a brick wall. He felt dejected, helpless and powerless to see his children suffering just because he came from strata of a society pushed against the wall.

One evening, he heard a knock on the door. He opened it and saw two strangers with bushy beards standing outside. Thinking they were there to collect ‘Chanda’, he asked with irritation what they wanted. They told him that they saw him crying in the mosque and on enquiry they were told that someone was refusing to pay his money back. With a surprised look on his face, he asked them who they were.

“We are local Taliban” Then they asked if he would let them have his side of story. He saw a ray of hope and ushered them in. After listening to his story, the Taliban told him that the borrower had committed an un-Islamic act, and if he wanted they could persuade him to return the said money. “We want your permission”. His heart jumped with flickering optimism and immense joy and without any hesitation, he gave them his consent. Before they left the premises they asked for 72 hours.

According to the police officer, the Taliban went to the influential man and told him it was un-Islamic not to pay the amount he had borrowed from the man. They threatened that if he did not pay the debt back within 48 hours; he would bear the consequences. They also told him how Taliban had previously dealt with people like him. Shivers went through the spine of the ‘powerful’ man as he knew what their threat meant. With a dry mouth, frightened face and shaking body he nodded his head in agreement, promising he would pay back the amount. The next day, he went to the house of the lender and paid back the full amount he had refused up until then. He apologised for the delay and requested him to tell the Taliban not to harm him or his family and to let them know that he had returned the money. The Taliban never went back to ask whether he got the money back, but they must had been watching the development. From that day on, according to the police officer, that man became a strong supporter of Taliban. Could anyone blame him?

When Taliban justice is seen as free of corruption, the people can overlook its harshness – at least, some of them.  As long as corruption is the way of life in Afghanistan and the Taliban are seen as the anti-corruption faction, the campaign will be very hard to prosecute, and in fact no lasting good is likely to come of it.

The application of soft power is necessary in Afghanistan, and this power doesn’t necessarily mean more largesse.  But it does mean that we must be clever and crafty regarding the politics, governance, mentoring and instruction of the Afghan government, and the accountability we demand of the current (and future) regime.  We must not be as politically stolid as we were in Iraq.  We might just win the military campaign and lose the country because we back a corrupt regime.


You are currently reading "Afghanistan, Corruption and Counterinsurgency", entry #2156 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Corruption in COIN,Featured,Taliban and was published February 15th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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