Corruption eats away at Afghan government
DOUG SAUNDERS/ From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
KabulPress editor’s note:
This significant article paints a dismal picture of Afghan officials. A majority of the bitter comments it received on the Globe and Mail’s website see it as justification for Canada to cease all assistance to Afghanistan. They miss the point of this and many other articles critical of the Afghan administration and provincial officials which appear in KabulPress.
A principal role of the press is to reveal facts and initiate positive change. Afghanistan is not a hopeless case. Its current difficulties should be viewed as part of a long process. In today’s connected world, the more developed nations cannot walk away from problems that they have, in many ways, created. This article is a call to action, not abandonment.
KABUL — Among the soldiers, diplomats and aid workers who live in Afghanistan, it is the problem that nobody dares mention.
Among ordinary Afghans, it’s a daily presence, the corruption that is rooted deeply in the Western-backed Afghan government and its appointed officials.
When Afghans are forced by uniformed men to pay large sums of cash in order to travel safely on provincial roads, as they are daily, when their colleagues are arrested and beaten in exchange for ransom payments, when they learn that people pay $150,000 for the job of district police chief in parts of Kandahar province, when entire aid shipments or thousands of police salaries are seized for private use, when world-record heroin exports take place under police watch, everyone in Afghanistan knows where to look.
On heavily guarded streets on the edge of every Afghan city and in the centre of Kabul are the large, wedding-cake houses, surrounded by walls and guards and filled with luxury goods, built in a style popularly known as “narcotecture.”
Inside live the senior officials with top roles in Afghanistan’s government, some of whom have amassed fortunes of hundreds of millions of dollars. Some are governors of provinces, like Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid, reported by Canadian diplomats to have committed torture. Some are top cabinet ministers.
Others wield power through family ties to the President. The man considered by many observers to be the most powerful and feared figure in the Afghan south is not the Kandahar governor but rather Ahmed Wali Karzai, appointed by his brother, President Hamid Karzai, to represent Kandahar province in Kabul.
A U.S. government document leaked to ABC News two years ago accused him of being the central figure in the region’s vast opium-export market, which produces the majority of the world’s opium and heroin. This week, senior U.S. and British officials said in interviews that they believe he enables, and likely profits from, opium shipments across southern Afghanistan to Iran, and prevents opium crops of those who support him from being eradicated. He has repeatedly denied such accusations.
Huge fortunes are being earned by many of these officials, Western sources said. It is customary to charge a 20-per-cent commission on imports or exports brought through their provinces, including opium exports valued at more than $800-million. That means hundreds of millions can be earned each year in a country where many families live on less than a dollar a day.
And there are other avenues for corruption. Last fall, U.S. military officials discovered that in one region of eastern Afghanistan only a third of the 3,300 police officers supposedly serving in the region actually existed; the salaries from the 2,100 “ghost officers” were going straight into the pockets of politicians and senior police figures. This practice is thought to be commonplace across Afghanistan, with as many as 60 to 80 per cent of officers in some districts being “ghosts.”
Indeed, Western-funded programs designed to end corruption can have the opposite effect. British officials said that the governor of Kandahar has used poppy-eradication funds, designed to eliminate the opium-poppy crops of wealthy traffickers at the top of the drug economy, to target his political enemies, usually people who are not on the list for eradication.
“There’s a lot of belief among Afghans that when [the West] turns off the taps, it’s going to go back to 1989, so these warlords are building war chests, big piles of money for guns, tanks, whatever,” a British official said.
Getting to the bottom of the corruption in Afghanistan is nearly impossible. The country does not have conspiracy or racketeering laws, which would allow prosecutors to investigate them. Nor does it have more than a rudimentary banking system, so that ill-gotten funds are difficult to find. U.S. officials said, however, that some moves are being made in this direction, and some senior officials may soon be placed on no-fly lists.
Western officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with the power of such well-connected strongmen as larger areas of Afghanistan fall under Taliban control and the millions in Western spending produces few signs of a sustainable economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier made the mistake of telling reporters in Kandahar city last month that Canada had been pressuring President Karzai to have Mr. Khalid, the Kandahar governor, removed from office, it represented the tip of an iceberg of diplomatic and political pressure being put on Mr. Karzai by Western governments.
“It’s our biggest single problem, bigger than the Taliban, bigger than poverty,” a senior British official said.
Mr. Karzai’s close relationship with some warlords and distrusted leaders, possibly including members of his own family, has been a well-known problem since he became President in 2004. But now, as jockeying begins toward a 2009 presidential election and Western officials are increasingly anxious to bring stability to Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai’s acquiescence to violent and deeply corrupt men is increasingly considered unsustainable.
“I think there is an issue of corruption in this government, accepted by everybody, to include President Karzai,” General Dan McNeill, the U.S. commander of the NATO coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said in an interview. “Corruption, in my view, is the symptom, the disease is greed, and that works against what we’re trying to do here.”
But in the run-up to the election, President Karzai appears increasingly unwilling to take action.
“Unfortunately, the corruption now has reached even the highest-ranking elected officials, and that is becoming a constant problem. … What I see in Afghanistan is a weak and corrupt government, and the Afghan people have to deal with this, not the international community,” said Yunus Quanooni, the Speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament and a potential presidential challenger. “The President sees them as an instrument for re-election himself, so he doesn’t dare touch them.”
And when he does touch them, it can be in unhelpful ways.
Last summer, Haji Zahir, the commander of the Nangarhar province border police, was caught shipping 123.5-kilograms of heroin across the Pakistani border. He was removed from his post, but never charged.
In March, after years of international pressure, Mr. Karzai ousted Asadullah Wafa from his job as governor of Helmand province amid allegations that he had profited from that province’s enormous opium exports and enabled large-scale organized crime. Mr. Wafa had expelled two British officials from the province after they had launched a program to get Taliban leaders to surrender. After being fired, Mr. Wafa was promptly appointed last month to a new position: head of the complaints department in the national-security branch of Mr. Karzai’s
Indeed, the current pressure by Canadian and other officials to remove the Kandahar governor from office seems almost identical to a similar campaign, begun five years ago, to get his predecessor, the former mujahedeen fighter Gul Agha Sherzai, removed from the same office.
Mr. Sherzai had admitted to receiving $1-million a week from his share of import duties and from the opium trade, and was considered violent and dangerous.
He was immediately made governor of U.S.-led Nangarhar province in the east, where U.S. officials say he has been a useful ally in ending opium-poppy production and establishing law and order. U.S. officials said that they believe he has a net worth of $300-million from his time running Kandahar, but that his level of corruption is fairly minor now. Nevertheless, they hope to see him gone some day.
“I think you’re going to see less and less of the Sherzai-type figure; he’s a transitional type,” said Alison Blosser, an official with the U.S. State Department involved with provincial reconstruction in Nangarhar.
Indeed, many of the current corruption problems date back to the early months of the Afghan war, in 2001, when U.S. Army Special Forces and CIA agents gave millions of dollars to regional fighters such as Mr. Sherzai to battle the Taliban, and then, after the Taliban had been ousted, allowed them to become the de facto government.
They displaced both the traditional system of tribal elders and the emerging national government. Mr. Karzai relied on them to extend his influence beyond his family’s own tribe.
Despite their alarm at some of these developments, officials from the United States, Britain and Canada all say they are maintaining their support for Mr. Karzai. This is partly because they see no viable alternative. None of the dozen-odd prospective presidential challengers seem strong enough to hold the country together.
And it is also because, certainly in the case of Canadian officials, they believe that some progress is being made toward installing non-criminal leadership in key branches of the government, even if it’s happening slowly.
Much of the Canadians’ faith is in the newly created Independent Directorate of Local Governance, or the IDLG, which was created by Mr. Karzai to oversee the appointment of regional and state leaders.
Since it was created last August, the IDLG has fired the governors of eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. And in an interview at his Kabul office, IDLG head Barna Karim, who is widely respected by Western and Afghan leaders, said that he hopes to see at least six more governors replaced in the near future.
But his office only has the authority to recommend changes to Mr. Karzai, and the President has lately seemed less interested in ousting officials, perhaps because of the looming election.
“We just have to curb them as much as we can, slowly and surely,” Mr. Karim said. “In those provinces where we changed governors, it wasn’t easy.”
And some officials are still considered untouchable. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s brother in Kandahar, is said to be beyond the reach of any government body.
Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, the Interior Minister, said in an interview that he does not consider the Karzais to be appropriate subjects of investigation. “The President of Afghanistan has sent an official decree to all the offices of the Afghan government, stating that we should not spare any members of his family from investigation,” he said, adding that he therefore did not consider it necessary to look into any such allegations.
Canadian officials are said to have pressed President Karzai hard during the past two years to reduce the power of his brother and of Mr. Khalid.
But they have backed off recently, in the wake of Mr. Bernier’s unguarded remarks and because they are said to believe that such efforts could be counterproductive.
Many observers believe that President Karzai will try to keep loyalists in office, regardless of their problems or ties to criminal activity, until next year’s presidential race is settled. He has not yet declared himself a candidate for re-election.
Gen. McNeill, the U.S. commander of the NATO coalition, likened Mr. Karzai’s position to that of a second-tier soccer club with a weak bench.
He noted that the vast majority of Afghans are illiterate, after enduring almost 30 years without functioning schools. The country has just produced its first batch of university graduates this year. In the view of officials such as Gen. McNeill, the hard men may have to remain in office for a while.
“If a government [such as Canada’s], which has a vested interest in a particular province, goes to President Karzai, and says, ‘This particular governor does not seem to be the person who has the skills to take this thing forward,’ and President Karzai turns to his bench, and what do you think he sees? It’s a tough business. … I think it’s in that line of effort that we have our slowest rate of progress. We think we’re helping, but it’s just a tough business.”