The confused fight against corruption

Yesterday morning saw the opening of a three-day national conference to identify “best practices and effective measures” in the fight against corruption. There will be workshops attended by government officials and civil society actors from all over the country, but yesterday I only stayed for the opening statements in the grand hall of the Ministry ...

575447_091216_94398473a2.jpg
575447_091216_94398473a2.jpg

Yesterday morning saw the opening of a three-day national conference to identify "best practices and effective measures" in the fight against corruption. There will be workshops attended by government officials and civil society actors from all over the country, but yesterday I only stayed for the opening statements in the grand hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And what was said and not said in those few hours both illustrated and confirmed how difficult dealing with corruption is going to be.

Of course we had to wait quite a while for the meeting to start -- standard practice for any event attended by the president -- so we chatted. Nobody was optimistic. On one side sat a former high ranking official, now adviser to some city development project. He said he was reading a book on corruption in India: "They have come such a long way in India. They have a functioning judiciary and police and prison institutions. And they still have so many problems. How can we ever deal with corruption without having these institutions?" But how do you make corrupt institutions function, so that you can then address corruption.

Yesterday morning saw the opening of a three-day national conference to identify “best practices and effective measures” in the fight against corruption. There will be workshops attended by government officials and civil society actors from all over the country, but yesterday I only stayed for the opening statements in the grand hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And what was said and not said in those few hours both illustrated and confirmed how difficult dealing with corruption is going to be.

Of course we had to wait quite a while for the meeting to start — standard practice for any event attended by the president — so we chatted. Nobody was optimistic. On one side sat a former high ranking official, now adviser to some city development project. He said he was reading a book on corruption in India: “They have come such a long way in India. They have a functioning judiciary and police and prison institutions. And they still have so many problems. How can we ever deal with corruption without having these institutions?” But how do you make corrupt institutions function, so that you can then address corruption.

On the other side sat a former employee of an earlier anti-corruption commission, many years ago. “We had seventy-two files detailing the evidence against high government officials involved in corruption, even at that time. Nothing happened. We could do nothing. Most of those people are sitting here today.” He and his friend had joked earlier that the conference should announce the arrest of 80 percent of those present as the first effective step in the fight against corruption.

Our conversation was joined by a governor in the seat in front of us. He shrugged: “We Afghans are not realistic, we are always idealistic and over the top. Now we are trying to get rid of corruption in a short time, but you cannot. We are trying to apply the most advanced formulas in a backward society. We should apply Afghan formulas and they should originate from within the people.” But who should formulate the “formulas” and ensure that they are followed? We didn’t quite solve that one. The foreigners were also at fault: “They treat Afghanistan as a laboratory to test their newest ideas and methods.” Except that even the testing is not really done seriously.

There was a blast just as we were about to start — a bomb in Wazir Akbar Khan as we heard later, killing seven or eight. The governor shrugged again, “I am used to these things. It is not the bombs that are dangerous; it is the fear that damages everything.” Earlier in the conversation someone had described how that morning ministry staff, who had been unaware of the event, had been roughly treated and even beaten by the President’s security detail at the gate. The Minister, who had himself gone to ask the guards to be a bit more respectful, had been brushed off.

And then there were the speeches. Osmani, the head of the High Commission of Oversight and Anti-corruption, was eloquent enough — “literary language from Zahir Shah’s time,” scorned a female MP later, but she had had something pointed to say about everyone — and the listing of the several forms of corruption that plagues the country did seem to hit home for a second. Bribes for government services, corrupt appointment practices, awarding of contracts, revenue collection, redirection of natural resources and government property — it was actually quite powerful to hear that articulated in a government gathering. These are, after all, issues that many Afghans feel very strongly about — a combination of shame, anger and disgust — and it really bothers them that this is how their country is now seen by the rest of the world.

President Karzai’s speech was largely improvised, so it can be considered a fairly accurate reflection of the things that came to his mind as he thinks about corruption. He talked about how people can get nothing done in government offices without a waseta — a connection, someone on the inside — and wondered how all the officials and civil servants could afford constant holidays to Dubai (when even the salary of a President was not enough to buy a bicycle), making the case for the registration and investigation of assets. After which he discussed at length how people cannot even feel safe in their own homes, when the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies can come whenever they want and detain or demand bribes at will, particularly from those who could call nobody to come to their defense. That this was also a form of corruption.

It was a fair point. People do get picked up for no reason other than extortion or personal grudge, but somehow what he said didn’t sound right. I was getting the uneasy feeling that this was maybe actually about the case of the Kabul mayor.

The Kabul mayor was arrested about a week ago, after a court had sentenced him to 4 years in prison, apparently for wastage of government funds by not properly tendering a contract (he is said to have lost about $16,000 which doesn’t seem very much considering the kind of money that is usually involved in being a mayor). He was released the next day and returned to his job, although the latest reports are that he has now resigned.

The case is incredibly opaque and opinions vary wildly as to whether he was unfairly framed or unfairly protected and whether it was his conviction or his release that constituted a miscarriage of justice. Some blamed the prosecutor’s office for presenting a hurried and sloppy case, claiming that there was much more that should have been investigated, while others argued that the mayor was targeted for being the only clean official in a corrupt environment. There were also those who thought he had been undermined for his role in the recent land distribution controversy, which has seriously damaged the reputation of both the President and the Parliament, although opinions again varied on what his exact role had been. The case had left many people guessing as to whether he was being supported or undermined by the President — well, at least that has been clarified.

As the speech progressed, Karzai addressed the issue head on: the mayor was a clean man. He may have some faults, but that was no reason to so deeply damage his reputation with a stain that could not be removed in a lifetime. This was a form of corruption and revenge-taking in itself (which put his earlier comments on how the administration and the judiciary needed to be de-politicized in a different light as well).

The subtext was clear, as he welcomed the mayor who was sitting at the front of the gathering: the man should not have been arrested, there is no merit to the case, it should be dropped. And all the speeches that came after that and all the discussions that are still to be had cannot take away the main conclusion of the conference: it is business as usual. The President, and his friends, will decide who can be touched and who cannot — for reasons that most of the time will remain quite opaque, even to those involved.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the AfghanistanAnalysts Network, where this was originally published.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images 

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.