When the Obama administration formulated its new strategy for Afghanistan, it included certain demands on the government in Kabul. First and foremost was tackling corruption, a practice that seeps into virtually every aspect of life and leaves many Afghans angry and frustrated.
Bribery and extortion — baksheesh and reshwat in the local language — have become routine.
Mohammed Nazir Habibzoi runs a busy trucking company on the far edge of Kabul. His 250 trucks crisscross Afghanistan and the region, shuttling all sorts of supplies.
But it costs him, he says. For example, his company transports goods from Tajikistan to Kabul. To prevent his trucks from getting delayed at the border, Habibzoi says, the drivers have to pay customs officials.
"Sometimes $50, sometimes $200," he says. "We also have to negotiate bribes at checkpoints along the way. If they ask for $100, we may settle on $50."
In 2005, Transparency International, a Germany-based organization that charts corruption in government, rated Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries. Now, the group ranks Afghanistan second from the bottom — the only country deemed more corrupt is Somalia.
Paying Bribes A Necessity
Lorenzo Delesgues, director of the local think tank Integrity Watch Afghanistan, recently conducted a study looking at the impact of corruption on people's lives.
"We calculated that an Afghan family, in average, pay $100 U.S. per year in bribe," he says. "Which is huge — it's like the equivalent of two months of the average salary."
Delesgues says many Afghans have come to accept that they have to pay for any service, whether it's getting a driver's license, ensuring the flow of electricity or running a company.
The extent of the public's aggravation can be found in the middle of a busy street in the center of Kabul. A lone traffic cop — his cap pulled down to his eyebrows, whistle clenched in his teeth — busily tries to keep traffic moving.
His name is Saboor, and he is considered famous in this city of 4 million people for one reason: He's honest.
The level of rage over corruption also is heard on a radio show called Safaee Shahar, or "Cleaning of the City." The program, which airs every Wednesday morning, draws about 10 million listeners from across Afghanistan.
For one hour, the hosts field calls from people who want to share the news, their opinions and their complaints. And when corruption is the topic, the discussion is always lively.
On one particular show earlier this month, a caller aired his view that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a crook and that his government is corrupt. The caller said Karzai needs to clean up the government to set an example for others.
Safaee Shahar co-host Masood Sanjar says accusations like these sometimes land him in trouble.
He remembers one show last year when a listener called in to complain about a hospital. "Our show is live, so we call — live — the responsible people," Sanjar says. The show called the spokesperson for the ministry of health, Sanjar says, and created an uproar that led to several government ministers threatening legal action.
Members of the Afghan government aren't used to being called out on allegations of corruption.
"Corruption, without a question, is a cancer that is eating through our society," says Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's finance minister from 2002 to 2004.
During his tenure, Ghani created a new monetary system and launched broad economic reforms. Since then, corruption has reached epidemic proportions, he says. Still, Ghani believes this can be reversed if the political will exists to implement strategic policies.
"The issue of corruption needs to be addressed," Ghani says. "We will not shift from being the second-most corrupt government on Earth to the cleanest in two years. Nobody expects Afghanistan to become Switzerland, but they want to see a pattern, a pattern of regaining momentum that is credible."
The Obama administration is putting pressure on Karzai to start cracking down on corruption and the drug trade that feeds it. Government corruption could be boosting the Taliban's popularity, and U.S. officials believe that a cleaner Afghan government will help build the trust of the population.
That means going after some big names, as Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, indicated in recent comments.
"Ordinary Afghans must be convinced the powerful can no longer use their positions to make them wealthier," Eikenberry said.
Eikenberry pointed to the Sherpur district of Kabul, where, he said, "the appearance of luxurious mansions ... many expensive cars parked inside, surrounded by private armed guards, is a very worrisome sign some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service. A walk through Sherpur district in Kabul makes this very clear."
'City Of Loot'
The roads in the Sherpur neighborhood are muddy and rutted, but everything else reflects wealth and affluence. Mirrored windows, enormous Greek columns and layer upon layer of gold leaf adorn the homes in this area. They belong to government ministers, warlords, suspected drug kingpins and contractors.
The Sherpur neighborhood is nicknamed "Chur-pour" — a play on words that means "City of Loot."
The people getting rich from drug profits or kickbacks have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. But there is some movement to change that. Anti-corruption units are being set up, and the attorney general's office hinted that as many as 15 government ministers may be indicted on corruption charges.
Delesgues, with Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says prosecutions would send a strong signal — but it's not enough.
"When you try a minister, you just remove an individual, but if the system is not changed, another guy will come with another name, and he will do exactly the same work," he says.
The source of the problem needs to be addressed, Delesgues says.
And Delesgues says the international community must share some of the blame for the soaring corruption in Afghanistan. He says it has had eight years to help Afghans set up accountability systems and encourage transparency, but has done neither.
Others say the international community is contributing to the problem by turning a blind eye to shoddy workmanship by Western contractors and paying bribes to ensure security on the roads, Delesgues says.
"They've been paying local commanders to make sure the area they are working would be safe from any attacks, and this [is] really destabilizing," he says.
The Taliban Profits
Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, says those local commanders have ties to the Taliban and other militants.
"Because they control the roads, because they control so much of Afghanistan now, they're able to extort money from subcontractors, who generally work for American or French or Germans," she says.
Analysts say contracts to supply U.S. and NATO bases have become a major source of Taliban revenue, meaning U.S. tax dollars are going directly to the Taliban.
Rondeaux points to a report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year looking at Taliban financing.
"To everyone's surprise, it wasn't poppy that was the main engine for the Taliban economy; it was graft, it was extortion," she says.
But news that the Taliban are also on the take has done little to dampen the rising anger and resentment at the government's inability to clamp down on the corruption.