Best Defense

Corruption in Afghanistan: An introduction to one fine mess

Corruption in Afghanistan: An introduction to one fine mess

By Gary Anderson

Best Defense office of foreign ethics

In 2004-5, I did a study on the future of the Taliban for Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who was then the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. After the 2001 U.S.-led intervention, the Taliban had appeared on the run, but three years later, they were making a comeback. What I found in the study was that the Karzai government was the chief enabler of the resurgent Taliban movement. Afghan governmental corruption and incompetence was making the Taliban look good in comparison, despite years of misrule when that organization was in power. As a commander, and later as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Eikenberry angered Afghan President Karzai by urging reform, and ultimately failed in his attempts to get Karzai to clean up his government in a meaningful way. Today, the Taliban are back in spades. This has damaged every aspect of the U.S. war effort because it affects security, governance, rule of law, and development. These are the pillars of coalition strategy in that unhappy country.

Corruption is exacerbated by the highly centralized Afghan form of government. All provincial (state) and district (county) officials are appointed by the central government in Kabul. On paper, there is nothing wrong with centralization. Many highly-developed democracies such as Japan have basically the same system. It even semi-works in Iraq. Those countries have good transportation and reliable communication systems. This allows the central government to control things that go on in governance in the provinces. None of that is true in Afghanistan. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for the Kabul government to closely monitor the performance of governance and development in the provinces, much less remove incompetent or corrupt officials.

The most pernicious corruption in our province was caused by the provincial commander of the Afghanistan National Police, the provincial prosecutor, and the director of public health. The head cop was a competent administrator, and kept the provincial capital relatively secure; however, he did so by hoarding personnel and resources badly needed by the outlying districts that he was supposed to be supervising. Outside the provincial capital, he was making a handy side-living running a protection racket for drug dealers and smugglers. Some of his handpicked appointees in my district were running extortion and burglary rings.

The prosecutor was making his money by encouraging defense lawyers from all over Afghanistan to send their wealthy clients to our province where he could guarantee light sentences or mere fines for serious offenses. The director of public health for the province, one Dr. Tariq, is a real piece of work. Over three years, he managed to misspend or divert $9 million dollars of World Bank funding, the vast majority of which was U.S.-provided.

While working at the district level, I had success in purging the worst of the bad cops in mid-level leadership positions by threatening to invite Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post to report on police corruption. This did cause the chief to replace to purge eight of them. It was a small start, but a start.

Once I got to the provincial capital as the governance advisor for the entire province, we caught a few breaks; they were caused, not by blatant corruption, but by gender issues. What finally did in the police chief was his reported rape of three female officers who had the gall to file complaints. Although they were eventually forced to retract their charges, a national uproar ensued, and the Afghan national government was embarrassed enough to reassign the top cop. However, to the best of my knowledge, he has not been held accountable for the rest of the corruption he fostered.

The prosecutor became a target because there was national level focus on the fact that many of his client protection scams were related to so-called "honor killings." In these crimes, husbands or other relatives kill a woman or girl for embarrassing the family by such heinous crimes as demanding a divorce or working outside of the house. The scrutiny was encouraged by us, and allowed our local national security directorate commander to organize a sting operation that finally jailed him. However, before he could go to trial, the former prosecutor used his connections to get permission to travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj religious pilgrimage. To the best of my knowledge, he is still on the loose.

Despite our compiling a package on Dr. Tariq and sending it to Kabul, he is still on the job. One of the most appalling charges is that at least 11 women died in childbirth for lack of midwives that World Bank funding had provided for the hiring of such medical personnel in the last year alone.

Almost everyone in the province knew that all three of these characters were bad actors, but no one could do anything about it because they were hired and paid by Kabul. It took outside action by foreigners and the public glare of the media to do what little that we could. Until the Afghan government allows some form of local public review of provincial and district officials, the government of Afghanistan will be its own worst enemy.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was a district governance advisor in Afghanistan’s Badghis Province. With transition of the district to Afghan security control, he became the provincial governance and rule of law advisor.