The big ‘C’ (Afghanistan)

The season's new fashion is in, and this fall, in Afghanistan, it is corruption. Indeed, corruption has become the issue on which the entire international community has descended en masse, to berate, hector, analyse and pontificate. It is no one's contention that corruption is not a serious issue. Unfortunately, as with most seasonal occurrences, it is the symptom that usually catches attention – while leaving the roots of the real disease submerged like an iceberg.

Attention on corruption in Hamid Karzai's government began to gather momentum in the final stages of the electoral process, when it became clear that Karzai would become the next president following a deeply flawed electoral process. In an attempt to overcome the crisis of legitimacy caused by its own inability to take a clear and consistent position on rule of law, the international community, with the US in the lead, has attempted to try and make the Karzai government a better one by calling for action against corruption and linking it to the aid it will give Afghanistan. The UK government began to bleat in unison. Recently, in a well-choreographed performance, the ambassadors of both countries appeared with a galaxy of Afghan officials to announce new anti-corruption measures – in an outpouring of rhetoric that was unable to disguise that nothing was new.

So what are the facts on the ground? While the Karzai government has been ticked off ad nauseum, 80 percent of the money coming into this country is spent not through the government, but directly by the donors. Even if one assumes that the entirety of the government's money is being siphoned off by greedy Afghan officials, this still leaves several billion dollars that could, potentially, have transformed Afghanistan by now. Transparency International has just labelled Afghanistan the second most corrupt country in the world, and other surveys have shown that most Afghans consider this to be a serious problem. However, an earlier survey by Integrity Watch, a reputed Afghan NGO, has revealed that most Afghans would still prefer their own government to spend the funds than have the foreign agencies do it. While documentation on the amount of aid money for Afghanistan that willy-nilly returns to the donor nations is hard to come by, estimates suggest it is upto 40 percent.

This is not to suggest that corruption in the government is not a serious issue. The widespread corruption has undermined institutions of state in the making, leaving them weak and fragmented. For this, however, the international community shares at least equal blame. It has promoted individuals at the expense of institutions, following the principle of having 'our man' in each department, ministry or province.

The US approach on corruption in the Karzai government has also involved leaking the wish list of offenders it wishes to see arrested for corruption, including one of President Karzai's brothers, Ahmed Wali. While symbolic arrests of high-profile Afghans would certainly help to send a political message, the repeated refrains about the president's brother are likely to achieve little apart from getting up the hackles of the president himself, especially since the international community does not appear to have the political will to force the issue. While the links of Ahmed Wali to the drug trade that fuels insurgency in Kandahar (where Wali heads the provincial council) has been written about extensively in the Western media, what is problematic is that he is singled out for a purpose – as a way for the Western donors to use President Karzai for their geo-strategic needs, yet to be seen to be distanced from him for the sake of the domestic critics back home.

Needed, but not this way
For ordinary Afghans, it is not corruption by the president's brother nor other powerful people that impacts on their day-to-day life so much as the corruption in institutions they have to deal with frequently, even daily. An Asia Foundation survey this year revealed that one in five Afghans has had to pay bribes in order to access health care and education for their children, either every time or most of the time. Health care and education are considered flagship programmes in terms of their expansion throughout the country, pushed all these years by the donor community.

Unfortunately, signals sent out in recent weeks do not give much hope that there will be significant steps on the issue of corruption. Rather than strengthening institutions and rule of law, both of which are intrinsic to curbing corruption, the international community is looking to compromise on both. Having stamped complete approval on an electoral process that broke the rule of law, the international community is now seriously considering bypassing an inconvenient president and dealing directly with individuals in powerful positions in the regions or provinces. Such a step, without the institutional devolution of power that Afghanistan urgently needs, will only help to breed further centres of corruption, while weakening the state structure even further.

As for the beleaguered president, his panacea for corruption was to announce a conference "to conduct research on this problem". His other step was to announce that the government would dismiss all government employees who are connected to the cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs, and hand them over to the justice system. It is a pity that convicted drug traffickers, have, as recently as during the campaign period, received presidential pardons when politically expedient. An equal pity is the fact that the US government's civilian representatives have called for Ahmed Wali Karzai's head on a platter as an important step towards curbing corruption – even as the CIA, as recently revealed, has had the gentleman on its payrolls for some time. Where does corruption start and where does it end?

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Himal Southasian