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No easy cure for Afghan ‘sickness’ of corruption

Afghans have a name for the huge, gaudy mansions that have sprung up in Kabul’s wealthy Sherpur neighborhood since 2001. They call them “poppy palaces.”

The cost of building one of these homes, which are adorned with sweeping terraces and ornate columns, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many are owned by government officials whose formal salaries are a few hundred dollars a month.

To the capital’s jaded residents, there are few more potent symbols of the corruption that permeates every level of Afghan society, from the traffic policemen who shake down motorists to top government officials and their relatives who are implicated in the opium trade.

Cronyism, graft and the flourishing drug trade have destroyed public confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai and contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban by driving disaffected Afghans to side with insurgents and protecting an important source of their funding.

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With casualties mounting and a decision on military strategy looming, President Obama and other Western leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to justify sending troops to fight for a government rife with corruption.

This month, when Karzai was declared the winner of an election marred by rampant fraud, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan warned that without major reforms, the Afghan president risked losing the support of countries that supply more than 100,000 troops and have contributed billions of dollars in aid since the Taliban was toppled in 2001.

Karzai has publicly acknowledged the corruption and pledged to “make every possible effort to wipe away this stain.” On Monday, the interior minister, national security director, attorney general and chief justice of the Supreme Court joined forces to announce a new crime-fighting unit to take on the problem.

But in the streets, bazaars and government offices, where almost every brush with authority is said to result in a bribe, few take the promises to tamp down corruption seriously.

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“It’s like a sickness,” merchant Hakimullah Zada said. “Everyone is doing it.”

In these tough economic times, Zada said, there’s one person he can count on to visit his tannery: a city inspector.

The lanky municipal agent frowns disapprovingly when he finds Zada and five other leather workers soaking and pounding hides in the grimy Kabul River and demands his cut -- the equivalent of about $40.

“He says we are polluting the river,” Zada says. “So we have to pay every day. Otherwise, he will report us to the municipality, and they will close down our shops.”

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A 2008 survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan found that a typical household pays about $100 a year in bribes in a country where more than half the population survives on less than $1 a day.

Government salaries start at less than $100 a month, and almost everything has its price: a business permit, police protection, even release from prison. When Zada was afraid of failing his high school exams, he handed his teacher an envelope stuffed with more than 1,500 Afghanis -- about $30. He passed with flying colors.

The corruption extends to the highest government officials and their relatives. Even Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has long been suspected of cooperating with drug barons, charges he denies.

Abdul Jabar Sabit, a former attorney general who between 2006 and 2008 declared a jihad, or holy war, against corruption, said he quickly learned that a class of high-ranking officials is above the law. They include members of parliament, provincial governors and Cabinet ministers.

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“I wanted to tear that curtain down, but I could not do it,” he said over tea in his modest sitting room at the top of a rundown apartment block.

As required by the constitution, he said, he wrote repeated letters to parliament requesting permission to investigate charges against 22 members ranging from embezzlement to murder. “Despite all my letters, the issue never made it onto the agenda of either house,” he said.

Sabit estimates that he filed corruption charges against more than 300 provincial officials before he was dismissed in 2008. Few were convicted, and “none of them are in jail now,” he said.

Obama and other world leaders have told Karzai that they expect him to take concrete steps to back up his promises to fight corruption. Karzai counters that donor countries share responsibility for the problem because of poor management of the funds pouring in for development projects, a concern shared by U.N. officials.

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Among the practices raising alarm is the so-called flipping of contracts, which are passed along from subcontractor to subcontractor. Each one takes a cut until there is little money left for the intended project. The result is often long construction delays and shoddy workmanship.

Many foreign and local observers think Karzai can’t begin to address corruption until he severs ties with former warlords who helped drive the Taliban from power in 2001 and shored up his administration when U.S. attention was focused on Iraq.

U.S. and other Western officials are pressing Karzai to form a government of competent professionals. But he will have to balance their demands against promises made to ethnic and regional strongmen who helped deliver the votes he needed for a second five-year term.

Western officials were particularly troubled by the recent return from Turkey of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former warlord who endorsed Karzai’s campaign. He is accused of overseeing the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners during the 2001 invasion, charges he denies. Karzai’s two vice presidents, Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili, are also former warlords accused of rights abuses.

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“There are also new figures who will try very hard to get their supporters in government,” said Fahim Dashy, editor of the independent Kabul Weekly. “They are coming with empty pockets and they will see this as a golden opportunity to make money, either by legal or illegal ways.”

Karzai has said there will be no place in his government for corrupt individuals. But his aides say that dismissals alone won’t solve a pervasive and systematic problem.

An investigation by the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, set up more than a year ago to oversee the government’s efforts to fight graft, found that on average it took 51 signatures to register a vehicle. Each signature had its price, for a total cost of about $400.

“It is hardly surprising if Afghans prefer to bribe policemen on a daily basis to turn a blind eye to their unregistered vehicles,” said Ershad Ahmadi, the bureau’s British-educated deputy director.

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Ahmadi said his office helped streamline the process to four or five steps, and it requires that payments be made directly to the bank, thereby reducing the opportunities for corruption. But without the minister of transportation’s cooperation, he said, his team would have been powerless.

“We do not have the necessary powers and independence to fulfill our mandate,” Ahmadi said. For a start, it was never given the legal authority to investigate or prosecute corruption -- only to refer cases to law enforcement agencies, themselves part of the problem.

“The police are corrupt. The prosecutors are corrupt. The judges are corrupt,” Ahmadi said.

It was not clear whether the new anti-corruption unit, which was set up with the help of U.S. and British law enforcement agencies, would be more effective at pursuing individuals who indulge in corrupt practices. It is the third structure set up by Karzai’s government to tackle the problem; the first was disbanded after it emerged that the head had been convicted and imprisoned in the U.S. on drug charges.

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“The main problem . . . is that people have no confidence about the future,” Ahmadi said. “That makes them make hay while the sun shines.

“We need to persuade the people of Afghanistan that there is no returning to the miseries of the past,” he said. “The Taliban is not coming back. The international community is not abandoning Afghanistan, and there is going to be slow but steady improvement.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Karim Sharifi in Kabul contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The most corrupt countries

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berlin -- Afghanistan and Iraq, which receive billions of dollars a year in U.S. and other foreign support, are among the world’s most corrupt governments, a monitoring group said in a report released Tuesday.

“The results demonstrate that countries which are perceived as the most corrupt are also those plagued by long- standing conflicts, which have torn their governance infrastructure,” Transparency International said in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index report.

The report measures perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries, drawing on surveys of businesses and experts. The United States is listed as the 19th least corrupt nation, with the report raising concerns about the lack of government oversight of the financial sector.

The report found that the most and least corrupt countries were:

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The world’s most corrupt governments:

1. Somalia

2. Afghanistan

3. Myanmar

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T4. Sudan

T4. Iraq

6. Chad

7. Uzbekistan

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T8. Turkmenistan

T8. Iran

T8. Haiti

T8. Burundi

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T8. Guinea

T8. Equatorial Guinea

The world’s least corrupt governments:

1. New Zealand

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2. Denmark

T3. Singapore

T3. Sweden

5. Switzerland

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T6. Finland

T6. Netherlands

T8. Australia

T8. Canada

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T8. Iceland

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Source: Transparency International


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