From Afghan corruption emerges backwardness

By : Jamal Doumani

As Afghans headed to the polls this Saturday to cast their votes for the next president in a run-off election, one that appeared to be a dead heat between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, it was difficult to predict the outcome. But whichever of the two presidential hopefuls wins, he will have his job cut out for him, for the winner will have to deal with the most pressing problem bedevilling Afghanistan. And, yes, you guessed it — it is corruption.

It is axiomatic among sociologists and political scientists that there is an organic link binding a polity’s lack of progress and the degree of corruption that afflicts it.
Corruption can, these scholars claim, stating the obvious, break a social system in back and spirit. The more endemic corruption is, the more stultified that system is likely to be. And in 2013 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Afghanistan as number 174 in a survey of 176 countries for its officials’ pilfering of public funds, and for the use of bribery in that country as a currency of rational exchange in virtually every facet of social life.

Since 2002, the US has thrown $130 billion at Afghanistan, money intended for “reconstruction” alone. (Another $18 billion has been appropriated but not yet disbursed.) Afghan ministries have been unable to account for where much of it has gone. To be sure, the US has 72 inspectors general (IGs) in the country, independent watchdogs and auditors whose job is to sniff malfeasance, but they don’t appear to have left a dent.

One of them, a feisty former FBI agent, John Sopko, who was interviewed by the Washington Post last week, claims that it’s impossible to calculate how much was squandered by Afghan government officials, war profiteers and others, but he has some thoughts on what he called in the interview the “disaster” of Afghan aid. “To some extent, we just came in and threw the money in and thought we were in Kansas,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like Dorothy and Toto [from the Wizard of Oz, the 1939 American fantasy film]. You know, I walk out there, ‘Hey, this is not Kansas, guys.’
Namely, don’t give a horribly corrupt, desperately poor country gobs of money with little oversight.

The guy getting screwed is the taxpayer. The guy getting screwed is the honest Afghan who sees the money going to the dishonest Afghan.”

Of course, the most publicized scandal that highlighted the brazen nature of Afghan corruption was the one in 2012 that centered on the Kabul Bank, whose handful of insiders treated the financial institution they worked for as their personal piggy-bank, freely spending its $1billion in assets in order support their lavish life-style, while its president “lent” money under the table to family and friends. And Kabul Bank was no fly by night establishment. By 2010, it had 75 branches around the country and managed, on contract, the payment of an estimated $1.4 billion of the salaries of 80 percent of the Afghan goverment’s employees.

The collapse of Kabul Bank was a spectacular display of corruption that did not do much for the image of the Afghan government. Effectively, the largest private bank in the country was revealed to have been sitting atop a pyramid of fraudulent loans and kickbacks, and that revelation came about only after two American law enforcement agents, investigating the mysterious flight of billions of dollars in cash, met with a Kabul Bank whisleblower in Dubai who confessed all to them.

By then, as the New York Times reported at the time, Kabul Bank’s loan portfolio — roughly $861 million, or about 5 percent of Afghanistan’s annual economic output — had gone into the pockets of a mere 19 people.

Truth be told, waste of public funds, via fraud and abuse, was not confined to Afghans. Americans could be equally implicated in that regard, though their malfeasance came disguised as American capitalist enterprise.

Americans were behind literally hundreds of “reconstruction projects,” but the one that stands out was the project in the early, well-meaning days of the war, when the US attempted to rebuild the gutted, long neglected road between Kabul and Kandahar. Well and good. The reconstruction of the road could cut travel time for ordinary Afghans, between the country’s two main cities, by well over half. There was, though, a caveat: development of the project was structured in such a way that the necessary supplies and equipment were purchsed in America, technical experts came from consulting firms in America, who farmed out part of the job to American subcontractors, and since all these folks needed protection in a hazardous country like Afghanistan, crack bodyguards from private American security firms, such as the notoriously trigger-happy Blackwater, were hired at well over $1,000 a day.

The end result? As Tamim Ansary, author of Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, wrote in his book: “Typically, as much as sixty six cents out of every dollar allocated for development work in Afghanistan was banked in the United States.”

But that’s not corruption, is it now? Or is it?

In an article in the Washington Post last week about Nigeria, Sarah Chays, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that the putative anti-corruption rhetoric by Boko Haram — phony though it is — helped the terrorist group gain followers. “With the highest oil production in Africa, ample rainfall in half the country, good soil and resourceful people, Nigeria should be enjoying the benefits of economic growth. But its development outcomes have fallen since an oil boom began in the 1980’s. Why so little return on such vast wealth? Because the government has been stealing the money.”

There is no question about the corrosive impact of corruption on the soul of a human community, representing as it does a threat to the stability of society, and that society’s political institutions, ethical values and rule of law.

One only need to return to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index to see for one’s self the correlation between the degree of corruption in a country at the lower rung of the Index and the kind of backwardness that country suffers. Oh, yes, the new Afghan president has his job cut out for him.





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