Corruption Plagues Afghanistan Ahead of U.S. Withdrawal

Locals must endure a culture of mafia-like extortion from high ranks of government down to the street vendor.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivers his address in Kabul on December 5, 2013.
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Ahmed recalls driving to work through the streets of Kabul when he was stopped by a routine police checkpoint. The 33-year-old native of Kandahar moved to the capital city hoping to improve prospects for the nonprofit business he founded in his home town. 

He hadn’t yet updated his driver’s license from his old address, knowing that his refusal to pay the usual bribes at the local DMV would relegate his application to a weeks-long wait, if it were processed at all. 

A police officer stopped Ahmed at a checkpoint. Upon seeing he did not have up-to-date paperwork, he informed Ahmed of a new rule, requiring that he impound Ahmed’s car as punishment for six months. 

Ahmed asked if there were any alternative. 

“Give me 300 Afghanis,”Ahmed recalls the officer telling him, demanding a sum equivalent to about $5. Reality began to creep into Ahmed’s idealistic principles. 

“I gave him the money and then I left. He laughed and said ‘Man, that’s how things work in Afghanistan, just give me money,” says Ahmed. “It’s very difficult. At every point you have to give someone money.” 

[READ: 5 Things That Did (and Didn't) Happen in Afghanistan in 2013]

Ahmed is not his real name. He asked U.S. News to protect his identity in fear of government retribution for speaking out against what has become a culture of bribery and corruption all the way up to the cabinet minister level, at least. It’s a concept that particularly stings for this man, who is trying to build a business that employs his fellow countrymen and instills in them a sense of worth.

“We’re really frustrated. On the one hand you see people who are jobless, losing jobs, poor, suffering, powerless,” he says. “Then you see those Afghans who are hurting you. Afghans are defeating your goals. They’re doing it against your goal which is helping people.” 

“They don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to see that. And they’re not interested in what you’re telling them,” he says. 

Afghanistan is routinely ranked among the world’s most corrupt nations, along with Syria and North Korea. A September report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction says the U.S. has no discernable plan to fight corruption in Afghanistan, following more than a decade of occupation by the U.S. military as well as leviathan assistance efforts by groups such as USAID.  

High ranking officials in Afghanistan pay as much as hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars to placement officers for positions in lucrative parts of the country, according to multiple sources who spoke with U.S. News on the condition on anonymity, including former U.S. officials with experience in Afghanistan. A police chief in Kandahar, for example, or a customs official at the Pakistani border, or a Ministry of Education planner responsible for choosing the locations of new schools, all could stand to earn back exponentially more through a system of extortion carried out by their subordinates, who are all in on the scheme.

“You’re disappointed. Hopeless,” says Ahmed. “On several occasions I’ve decided I’m not going to work anymore. We’re just trying to keep it alive and do what we can, but it’s very hard, very difficult.” 

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On Sept. 22, 2011, almost exactly a decade after the 9/11 attacks that drew the U.S. into war in Afghanistan, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mullen was called to inform the legislative body on progress in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, which would witness the withdrawal of every single U.S. troop by the end of that year. 

One point dominated the subsequent news coverage: Mullen addressed questions about growing concern about neighboring Pakistan, and its potential complicity in Islamic extremist groups operating there. He stated plainly that Pakistan’s chief spy service, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, was in league with the Haqqani Network, a notoriously brutal and deadly Islamic group allied with the Taliban.