Fighting Corruption: A Tarnished Endeavour in Afghanistan

Brandt School student Aqil Zahirpour published another article recently on fighting corruption in Afghanistan.

Corruption has hindered Afghanistan’s path to stability and sound democracy. The country needs to stop supporting those who are charged with fraud but back those up who fight it.

In connection to his speech at the National Assembly on June 21, President Hamid Karzai issued a decree around three weeks ago, tasking his ministries, judiciary, and prosecutors with ardent outlines to fight nepotism, bribery, cronyism and corruption. The decree sparked the debate among intellectuals about whether it could help bring Karzai’s order to fruition. Observing the various reactionary takes along with the account of the government’s earlier failed attempts on the same, little is expected to achieve what the President has asked for without first getting rid of the already diagnosed corrupt elements in his administration.

Pressured Leadership

The government of Afghanistan has not been immune from challenges. Ever since its establishment, it has been struggling for peace, prosperity, and development. Its mechanisms to achieve these in the post-Taliban era, have been prone to serious criticisms. Its incompetent administration, undefined policies, and corrupt institutions have caused serious pressure for the leadership. The internal reforming protagonists such as the parliament, civil society, opposition political parties and also the international community have levied their respective pressure over the government. The international community’s concerns have recently been vividly harsh towards the government, holding them accountable for the country’s economic woes. Others blame the leadership for its weaknesses in warding off cross border disturbances, failing to hunt down the insurgents and ensure basic security means for the country. On top of this, the armed oppositions have been committing more roadside bombings, suicide attacks and severe military raids on public institutions, the military and civilians. Being squeezed in the midst of such situation, the Afghan leadership is losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and people find themselves in a difficult situation whereby they have neither been protected from the violence nor have they been ensured a lasting peace for the future.

Among the many elements that have caused regress in the development of the country’s infrastructure, corruption is considered to be the main problem undermining and subverting the path to good governance, development, stability, and sound democracy. It has become one of the most talked about issues in recent days; especially since President Karzai’s decree on the same has seen growing allegations over fraud cases of high ranking officials including the finance minister Zakhilwal, whose covert properties and over a million dollars stashed in overseas banks have been under serious debate and discussion.

While the elements for every means of corruption are fiercely denounced and restricted in the Afghan law and constitution, extortion by some government officials have been reported to be pervasive. Reports highlight land grabbing, nepotism and drug trafficking by some officials and their close kin. Around 121 High Office of Oversight recorded cases involving high ranking officials are languishing at the Supreme Court. Whether such cases are ever, or will ever, be brought to justice is a matter of contention, as any unpleasant judgement could be threatened by powerful figures.

The Problem

The foundation for the rife corruption in Afghanistan is said to have been laid when the country after decades of war was exposed to the era of foreign economic aid and development. Additionally, poor planning of these aids and the weak administration of the government and the international community to control and cease the opium trade and cultivation exacerbated the problem further. Afghanistan currently suffers from various forms of corruption, ranging from petty to major. Economic corruption and criminal/patronage corruption are the main concerns. The former entails extortion in contracts, foreign aid pledges and financial deals, while the latter involves connection to the insurgents, drug trafficking and even kidnapping. The daunting nature of petty corruption cannot be overlooked either, as it has been slithering into the day-to-day lives of the people. Bribery has become a common phenomenon dwelling within almost every institution. Fraudulent agents are usually found roaming outside the governmental administrative buildings offering to hasten work processes in exchange for a payment. Issues as these seem to be on the rise as we see the country’s corrupt position on ascendancy; ranking 34th in 2005, and 4th more recently.

Voices are usually raised against the executive branch of the state for such frauds. The parliament of the country has asked the government many times to clamp down on such mendacities. However, with due exceptions, elements of fraud have been sensed among MPs as well, some of whom are suspected to be under the strong influence of the elite members of the government and at times even by the regional intelligence for personal economic interests. One of the most recent cases that highlights this is the no-confidence vote from August 4, 2012 against the interior and defence ministers, who were charged with failure to ensure the country’s security and respond to the Pakistan’s cross-border rocket shellings. The Afghan observers, including some MPs who were against their ousting, contradicted the decision. They believed it to be the result of the government’s covert influence to get these ministers out of the cabinet for other reasons, and the probable clandestine influence of the regional intelligence that never favoured these two Afghan high security officials. Though there is no document to prove such allegations, fraud, corruption and confusion between the executive and the legislative branches with an undoubted inclusion of judiciary seem quite likely. Evidence of fraud, nepotism, and ethnicism have been found at all levels and this problem is likely to have an adverse impact on the policy and decision making process of the country.

Concerns to Tackle the Problem

Various attempts have thus far been made to help the country be rid of its reputation as corrupt. These attempts have nevertheless been economically driven and accompanied with impeding challenges as discussed above. The linkage of high ranking officials’ close kins with Kabul Bank’s scandal of late 2010 is an issue that is still not entirely resolved. Several donor countries and aid agencies have expressed their concern and at times even halted their aid to the country on the condition that it will not be instated unless the country is declared a fraud free zone. Prior to the aid suspensions, the US had called upon President Karzai in 2009 to end corruption; a period of six months was apparently assigned to bring it to an end. These efforts raised the Afghan leadership’s concerns for the issue but bore no notable effect.

While earlier attempts to improve the situation were not satisfactory, the Tokyo conference in July created a new opportunity for the Afghan leadership to combat corruption. The conference committed $16bn in aid, preconditioning its pledge based on a strict commitment by the Afghan government to ensure its use in a sound and transparent way. The president of Afghanistan, after having admitted the earlier challenged attempts and the current weak mechanisms, vowed commitment with a decree calling upon his officials to combat the means of corruption, this time perhaps more seriously than ever before.

Too Little, Too Late

The earlier as well as the recent attempts to curb graft and fraud have apparently shown great ambition but have lacked the determination and carefully planned measures to meet aims. President Karzai’s earlier vows and attempts to resolve this problem have never satisfied the public as he has been either too ambitious or too lenient and too late in his attempts. It is expected that his decree will turn out the same way, as he expects results within tight deadlines without taking into account his institutions’ capacities. As an example, the decree requests that the Supreme Court complete and finalize all dossiers particularly related to corruption, chain-assassinations, and land usurpation in six months, despite the fact that out of almost 24,000 prisoners only 12,184 cases have been finalized and around 11,000 dossiers  are languishing at court. Expecting the desired results within a six month time span seems an ill- considered plan, and will create doubts over as to whether his approach to achieving justice is genuine.

The decree also demands that the Supreme Court should activate all inactive courts within nine months in all provinces and districts, and staff them with professional personnel. It also demands the office of the Attorney General to reactivate the inactive prosecution offices in all districts. Yet Afghanistan has 34 provinces and over 300 districts and thus the expectations made by the decree are over ambitious in terms of the time frame given. Furthermore, many villages and parts of the country first need to be liberated from the claws of the Taliban until they can embark on reactivation of their courts and offices.

President Karzai’s earlier failed efforts to curb corruption and other significant attempts, such as ordering ban on the tinted windows of vehicles from the road sides in Kabul, have damaged his reputation among the public. Hence, instead of simply relying on a reform within the decree’s outlines, it would have been better had the leadership first built confidence by cracking down on some corrupt elements already dwelling within the system, or at least brought some of the earlier issued orders into action; any minor failure in meeting the deadlines of the decree will create a more serious worry among the people.

The government of Afghanistan seems to have always put forward the need to curb corruption, but it has never offered notable backing for those who wish to fight it. Unless and until anti-corruption culture is supported by officials as well as the public, getting rid of such a rampant problem will remain beyond the bounds of possibility. President Karzai, if honestly determined, may obtain this culture by two simple measures: Firstly, by putting an end to supporting those who are charged with fraud and secondly, by starting to support those who do fight corruption by any means – even if they are not prosecutors. The support that he previously provided for his close personnel who were sentenced to imprisonment when charged for corruption should not be repeated, as it undermines the credibility of the prosecutors besides encouraging a culture for fraud. If the prosecutors are claimed to be politically biased, he should not stand still and should bring them to justice.

For the second measure, one of the most recent cases includes the resignation of seven senior officials of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency who protested against their chief for rampant nepotism and fraud. Their resignation was publicly announced as a cause to fight corruption and sought justice from President Karzai to help them in their mission. Meeting the demands of these bright citizens would be a great chance to create a sense of confidence and encouragement among the public to fight this daunting phenomenon. However, more than a month has gone by since their resignation and the government has not been able to approach their cause. If President Karzai falls short of supporting such motivated citizens in the wake of his overwhelming commitment to fight corruption, it will not only signal his overall failure in governance, but will also risk his sustainability as a legitimate ruler.

The article was originally published on Fair Observer.