Corruption and poor governance is a critical problem in Afghanistan. The monitoring organization Transparency International ranks the government of Afghanistan as the world’s second most corrupt, behind only that of Somalia.
A U.S.-sponsored radio call-in show encourages Afghans to discuss corruption: One caller — Fiadullah from Hidakhel village — says people know there is corruption, and complains a government official in the capital of Kabul asked their provincial education office for a bribe to process an application. Fiahdullah thinks there should be a secret police force to investigate corruption. Another caller says most people know the governor is corrupt; that a traffic policeman demanded a 5000-rupee bribe for a driver’s license, because the chief of police threatened to fire him if he didn’t ask for money.
“Everybody’s corrupt. But there is an acceptable level of corruption. They don’t see it as corruption. That’s our word, not theirs,” said Agribusiness Development Team Commander Colonel Brian Copes. “They see it as a certain amount of privilege and as divine providence. If divine providence has smiled on you, and you were fortunate enough or well connected enough to be made a district governor or a police chief or a provincial governor, you expect it if you’re in the position, they expect you to take advantage of the position to benefit yourself.”
But the United States is now embarking on a program to provide the Afghan government management training and funding. On the provincial level, the ADT and other U.S. agencies are teaching Afghan government ministers basic managerial functions, such as budgeting and the need for transparent procurement.
“We’ve got to teach them how to build a little bureaucracy—Business 101, that kind of thing,” Copes said. “That’s going to take a long time, but I think that is certainly the proper approach. That is the exit strategy in the long term: to develop the Afghans’ ability to manage their own affairs.”
But Copes says it also presents challenges.
“I’ve probably had a dozen of the Afghan leaders candidly say as we’re talking, ‘You should not even trust me. Don’t give me the money.’ Or ‘Don’t give me the money, I wouldn’t give it to my employees.’ I mean, they just, ever so matter of factly, say, ‘You should not even trust me.’”
ADT Colonel Cindra Chastain says battling corruption can also be risky.
“Nobody trusts anybody. Everybody thinks everybody is skimming off the top. And they probably all are,” she said. “So what we tried to do on a couple of contracts to avoid that is we paid the employees directly. But what that did was put us in danger.”
After the ADT spent a long day in Taliban-controlled mountains paying Afghan villagers, a bomb intended for the Americans exploded. The team narrowly avoided the blast. So when the ADT needed to pay the villagers the last $50,000 they were owed, the team reverted to the customary way of paying contractors in a country without an effective banking system.
“The contractor came to the front gate, and our pay agent met him at the gate with a garbage bag of 2.4 million Afghani money, in a garbage bag, and gave it to him,” Chastain said. “He signed for it, but…we gave it to him.”