The South Asia Channel

Combating corruption in Afghanistan

By Karin von Hippel The recent Afghan presidential elections, marred by serious accusations of fraud, have served as a much-needed catalyst for questioning the United States’ overall goal and purpose in the country. A more robust national discussion — one that was notably lacking before the war in Iraq — should be considered critical to ...


By Karin von Hippel

The recent Afghan presidential elections, marred by serious accusations of fraud, have served as a much-needed catalyst for questioning the United States’ overall goal and purpose in the country. A more robust national discussion — one that was notably lacking before the war in Iraq — should be considered critical to President Barack Obama’s decision about the way forward in light of the recommendations presented by his commander in the field, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Many coalition countries have also been going through similar existential crises: Canada and the Netherlands have already committed to military end-dates, and Italy may be next in the queue after losing six soldiers on September 17.  There are growing rumbles in Germany and the United Kingdom, two countries also confronting increased domestic disenchantment with the war.

Significantly, this heightened anxiety over the war has not fallen on deaf ears inside Afghanistan, and is reverberating loudly throughout the presidential palace in Kabul. Afghan concern that the West’s financial and military lifeline may be pared back significantly should concentrate minds in Kabul, and may in fact provide the necessary stimulus to turn things around.

The opportunity provided by this confluence of conditions — in Afghanistan and the West — should be seized by all actors without delay. A new, more mature and responsible partnership needs to be forged, one that is publicly grounded in the mutual recognition that both the Afghan government and coalition countries have fallen far short in delivering on promises. Both sides of the partnership need to commit to radical changes in performance, and shift from co-dependence to mutual reinforcement.

Starting with the Afghan side, the Afghan government is riddled with corruption and has been mostly unable to deliver basic services and security or establish minimal rule of law standards. This, in turn, has enabled the Taliban to return in a far more lethal and networked manner than a decade ago. Elections that are increasingly being viewed as illegitimate have only provided additional fodder for the Taliban propaganda machine, and undermine what little support the Afghan government may still have with its people.

While most Afghans would not welcome a return to Taliban rule, at the same time, the Taliban are generally perceived as less corrupt than the government and have provided some basic services and “rough justice” at local levels (which many view as better than no justice or delayed justice). For example, citizens can wait years before getting a simple case heard if they attempt to navigate through official channels, but Taliban courts can take as little as a week or so per case.

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The Afghan government has failed to deliver, but the U.S. and other international efforts suffer from their own serious challenges. Let’s focus here on development assistance, the “build” component that is fundamental to any counterinsurgency campaign. Nearly eight years into the mission, the vast majority of the funding spent thus far on non-military assistance — more than $38 billion by the U.S. government alone since 2002 — has not gone directly to the Afghan people. Rather, it has been channeled through many layers of contractors and implementing partners, each of which takes a slice of the pie along the way. One recent study found that international contractors receive three-quarters of U.S. development assistance in Afghanistan, and nearly 60% of all international assistance. One wonders what percentage of every dollar is getting to the Afghan people, particularly given the enormous security and other costs associated with international personnel in Afghanistan.

Even if international civilians and soldiers all espouse “Afghanization” and building local capacity, reality simply doesn’t match the rhetoric. Thus it’s no wonder that ordinary Afghans think that the U.S. government is as corrupt as their own: they hear about billions being spent but see little evidence that the money is reaching the people. Here, perceived corruption due to lack of transparency over donor spending can be just as harmful as real corruption (which also exists), as it feeds conspiracy theories and emboldens the claims made by the Taliban. Today, there is little clarity as to what donors are doing, where the money goes, and whether or not successes and failures in some parts of the country are informing experiences elsewhere.

We urgently need a new partnership between the Afghan government and the U.S. and coalition partners so that trust can be restored — not only for concerned citizens in the United States, Canada and Europe, but critically, for the Afghan people. This partnership should be embodied in a new joint compact that includes a public commitment by all parties to change.

For its part, the Afghan government would implement internationally-accepted safeguards, as promoted by international organizations such as the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or Transparency International, among others, to eliminate corruption at district, provincial, and federal levels. The government would also remove the most egregious warlords and drug kingpins from positions of power, in spite of whatever personal or political alliances they have. 

In turn, the U.S. government and other partners would ensure that their assistance goes more directly to the people of Afghanistan, with local firms receiving as many contracts as possible. No major warlords or other wanted criminals would remain on the payroll of any member of the coalition. Both sides would commit to take corrective action against corrupt local officials who demand bribes for everything from obtaining a passport to passing a traffic checkpoint.

The new compact should include full transparency over all monies spent by the Afghan government and by donors, and be compiled in simple, jargon-free language.  Everyone should publish what they spend.. The compact should include metrics of progress that can be periodically measured by opinion polling that directly pertain to improvements in the lives of Afghans, such as individual safety, confidence in government, ability to obtain basic services, and other measures. It should be readily disseminated and publicly monitored through a mix of high-tech and no-tech tools: on websites, radio programs as well as through  postings at local tea houses. Such “two-way accountability” can help to end corruption and ensure that funds are prioritized and spent in effective and appropriate ways.

Rather than continued haranguing against corruption by the U.S. government and other coalition partners — which defines too many meetings these days between Afghan officials and international counterparts — these same international actors need to acknowledge publicly that they too have made mistakes. Gen. McChrystal’s leaked review started down this path already by pointing to past NATO errors. Only when Afghans and international actors work together to combat corruption and deliver services in a more direct and accountable manner can the country shift gears and move away from a deepening crisis toward stability.

Karin von Hippel, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and recently served as an election observer in Afghanistan with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.


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