Scaling Back Corruption Will Give Afghans Another Option

“Corruption is the great leveler,” 2009 Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani said at an Asia Society event on Tuesday. “We have perfect national unity [on that subject], when we are divided on other things.”

Corruption is not unique to Afghanistan, or other developing nations. However, ending large-scale corruption there will be one of the pillars needed to form a stable nation, according to experts at an Asia Society event. Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, broke down the corruption issue in alarming detail, exposing the shortcomings of both the international and Afghan communities. For a country that recently acknowledged that it might take 15 to 20 years to be able to support its own modern military without aid, every pilfered penny counts. And though, as Judah pointed out in an earlier post, corruption is a concern of international donors whose money is being misappropriated, it also affects the average Afghan, who would be able to turn to government-funded public services — instead of those of the Taliban — if the resources for such services existed.

Ghani sees corruption in all aspects of Afghan society, with much of it resulting in ill-gained profits for about 20 wealthy Afghan families. Here are some of the main areas that he says are at the root of the problem:

Customs. Quoting the Ministry of Finance audit department, Ghani said that Afghanistan loses about two-thirds of its potential revenue as goods change hands through customs. This problem could be solved by following simple, enforceable guidelines, and doing so could replace approximately 60 percent of international subsidies.

Loss of public land. Looting of public land accounts for approximately 1,000 acres lost to public use every week, Ghani said, privatized in “the old Russian style.”

Imports. This example illustrates how corruption can affect the average Afghan on a very basic level. According to Ghani, wealthy traders pocket the price difference between the government contracts they receive and the poor-quality, cheap goods — such as oil — that they deliver. Meanwhile, Afghan cars continue to have the world’s shortest engine life, and children with health problems suffer from the exhaust fumes. “It’s a question of standards and enforcement,” Ghani said.

Construction. A sector known worldwide for corruption and shady sub-contracting practices, Afghanistan also struggles with government contracts and procurement of goods. “Contrary to all accepted previous rules of Afghan government, now conflict of interest is accepted rather than frowned upon,” Ghani said.

Drugs. Ghani said that as bad as the staggering amount of money made from the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan is, the domestic corruption that it causes is just as detrimental. For cartels to move large quantities of heroine out of the country, the purchasing of police positions and official vehicles has become a necessity. This is an example of how corruption erodes the legitimacy of government on a local level, a serious detriment when fighting for national support.

Small scale corruption. Want to pay your bills? In Afghanistan, you better have enough for the bill plus the bribe needed to pay it.

Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, says that nowhere else in the Middle East has he seen corruption on the scale that he has witnessed in Afghanistan. He traces the mentality behind the corruption to a long history of being disappointed by outsiders. Tarzi says that due to this historical mistrust, Afghans on all levels hoard what they can, because they do not know when assistance — in this case from the United States — will leave them to their own devices.

If Tarzi is right about that, with President Barack Obama already talking about withdrawal dates, corruption will remain a tough adversary for nation-builders.