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Afghans Caught Between Terror and Corruption

Bombed-out ruins in Afghanistan. Credit: Anand Gopal/IPS

HERAT, Afghanistan, Sep 10 2013 (IPS) - The threat to the stability of the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan arises not so much from outside as from within. And the one thing that is eating into its edifice is the malaise called corruption.

“Corruption is undermining what little legitimacy the government has left,” Qader Rahimi, head of the western branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, tells IPS. “The people do not trust the government. They do not believe that it works for the good of all.”

The international community, he says, has so far concentrated its fight against Al-Qaeda and terrorism. But it’s time it turned its focus on corruption, “our biggest enemy,” he adds.

The available statistics do little to counter his pessimism. According to a joint survey conducted by the Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption (HOOAC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe in 2012 while requesting a public service.

The survey, titled Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent Patterns and Trends, was released in February. It put the total cost of such corruption at 3.9 billion dollars.

With just over a year left for the NATO-led forces to disengage with Afghanistan and bring the transition process to an end, there is serious introspection within the country over what the international community and the Afghan government have achieved since 2001, when the war against terror began. Many Afghans are still trying to figure out why they should be still in a war that is counting its 12th year and becoming more and more destructive.

According to the latest mid-year report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the country saw a 23 percent rise in the number of civilian casualties over the first six months of 2013.

And one of the factors Afghans see as fostering the conflict and encouraging anti-government mobilisation either directly or indirectly is the lack of confidence and trust in the government.

“There is an enormous communication gap between the people and the government,” says Abdul Khaliq Stanikzai, regional manager for Sanayee Development Organisation, a non-governmental body. “People do not have the mechanisms and instruments to make their voices heard and to influence government choices,” he tells IPS.

This, according to him, has created a high level of mutual distrust.

The lack of confidence in the government is only growing, due to the gap between expectations and actual achievement in terms of economic development, guaranteed rights, functioning institutions and, above all, social justice and equality.

“Initially, after the removal of the Taliban regime, people were hoping for a transparent and equal government. Now, no one expects anything from the government,” says Asif Karimi, project coordinator in Kabul for The Liaison Office, an Afghan organisation focusing on communitarian peace-building. Most people, he tells IPS, are neutral, wanting neither the government nor the Taliban.

Mirwais Ayobi, lecturer in law and political science at the University of Herat, thinks that trust in the Taliban is growing. “If you ask the Taliban to solve a dispute,” he tells IPS, “they focus on reconciliation instead of demanding money.”

He considers corruption in the political and administrative systems an enormous challenge, because it is eroding the citizens’ trust.

Afghanistan was placed third in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2012, after Somalia and North Korea.

The average size of the bribes, according to the HOOAC-UNODC survey, varies from sector to sector.

“Bribes tend to be larger in the justice sector,” it notes, “where the average bribe paid to both prosecutors and judges is more than 300 dollars.” The amounts given to local authorities and customs officials, at 200-odd dollars, are smaller. Bribes paid to other officials range from 100-150 dollars, it found.

Many consider the problem to be structural. Among them is Rahman Salahi, former head of the Herat Professionals Shura, an independent, non-political organisation in Afghanistan’s western province comprising associations of lawyers, economists, teachers, engineers and others advocating a more active engagement of the local civil society with the country’s reconstruction.

“Until a few years ago we had what was basically a socialist economic system, based on the mould left by the Soviet occupation,” Salahi tells IPS. “When the international community came, we adopted a free trade system lacking adequate institutional structures for oversight and policy guidelines.”

For Antonio Giustozzi, visiting professor at the Department of War Studies in King’s College, London, and a specialist on Afghanistan, “The quantity of aid earmarked for the country, as well as the mechanisms for its distribution and assignment, exceeded the society’s overall absorption capacity and the institutions’ capacity to manage it.”

The mismatch between the wide flood of aid and the narrow absorption capacity gave raise to corruption, says Giustozzi, something which he thinks is now “totally entrenched within the political system.”

Apart from these structural reasons, the international community too is seen to have fostered a culture of impunity in the country through the empowerment of the so-called warlords.

“International (bodies) gave political power and money to warlords, to those who have committed crimes, to those who killed thousands of innocent people, to those who are involved in the corruption system,” says Sayed Ikram Afzali, head of Advocacy and Communication for Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a civil society organisation.
“People had hoped things would change, that they would get justice and equality after the Taliban was defeated,” he tells IPS. But that did not happen.

There is still hope, though, he feels. “The warlords do not have strong roots among the people, they deny them social justice. They have hijacked the State. The time has come to free the State from these people.”

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