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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The official cited the massive revenues lost to corruption, and that fears concerning abandonment by international partners could force Afghans to engage in practices that allow corruption to take place. 

“Corruption is holding back the Afghan economy in a number of ways,” the official said. “Investors, both foreign and domestic, are hesitant to risk their money without some confidence that their rights will be protected. Government resources, that could be used to provide services and build infrastructure, are stolen. The Afghan banking system’s ability to do business with the broader international financial community will be limited without a good anti-money laundering law.”

The official says the State Department has “zero tolerance for corruption with regards to our assistance programs.” It has instilled new programs to help with this effort, such as providing direct payments to individuals through cell phones instead of in hard currency. 

The State Department declined to comment further. 

Yet Afghans remain increasingly concerned about corruption in their government and its future implications. 

D.C.-based nonprofit The Asia Foundation has conducted an annual survey since the early years of the war in Afghanistan, measuring the fears and expectations of citizens there and their outlook for the future. 

“Afghans see corruption as a major problem in all facets of life and at all levels of government,” stated the 2013 report, released in early December. Roughly half see corruption as a problem in their neighborhood. More see it in their daily life, and almost 60 percent experience it at the hands of local authorities. 

Roughly two thirds say it is a major problem at the provincial level, and more than three quarters, 77 percent, say corruption is “a major problem in Afghanistan as a whole.” 

Numbers have not been this high since 2006, according to the report, prior to the coalition troop surge in the late 2000s. 

A September report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction faults the State Department-led presence in Afghanistan for not forming a coherent strategy for combatting corruption. 

SIGAR first reported in 2010 that the U.S. had spent $50 billion for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan without a comprehensive plan for fighting institutionalized corruption. Roughly $46 billion more has been spent since then. 

“The U.S. anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan are not guided by a comprehensive U.S. strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for U.S efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” the report states. 

The Pentagon’s regular report to Congress shows similar shortcomings. 

“The U.S. anti-corruption activities in Afghanistan are not guided by a comprehensive U.S. strategy or related guidance that defines clear goals and objectives for U.S efforts to strengthen the Afghan government’s capability to combat corruption and increase accountability,” according to November’s Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan

It later states, “The Afghan government’s counter-corruption efforts have shown no substantial progress, apart from the public acknowledgement that large-scale corruption exists.”

[READ: Rep. Van Hollen: State Department Needs Funds]

It’s important to remember the solution does not necessarily lie in the absence of corruption. The same index that ranked Afghanistan worst in corruption also listed 18 countries above the United States. Israel is ranked 36th and South Korea is 46th, though all of these nations remain relatively functional. 

The problem lies in whether there is any “organic institution” that can help combat it.

“There will be very different times after the U.S. and NATO troop drawdowns,” says Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general and ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. “We don’t know what organic government, security or the economy looks like without massive levels of international aid and assistance - but we will soon find out.”