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Afghan Corruption Complicates U.S. War Review

November 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill speaks with Afghanistan experts about the government's corruption and what that could mean for U.S. war strategy there.

JIM LEHRER: That follows Gwen Ifill’s look at corruption in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: As President Obama approaches a decision about the U.S. role in Afghanistan, one question looms. Amid the reports of continuing corruption, what kind of partner will Hamid Karzai be?

Joining us to tackle that question are Mariam Nawabi, an attorney and consultant to organizations doing business in Afghanistan — she was also born there — and Alexander Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan group that promotes conflict resolution. He returned from Afghanistan last week.

So, since you returned from Afghanistan last week, Mr. Thier, let’s talk about this. How real are these allegations of corruption?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: They’re very real.

Corruption goes from the highest to the lowest levels in Afghanistan. You hear about problems in corruption at the street level, with people trying to get driver’s licenses, going into courts, being asked for bribes, going through roadblocks and things like that. But it also goes to the very highest levels of the government.

GWEN IFILL: Like that $30 million bribe we read into in the paper today.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: That’s right. There was also a story going around Kabul last week that a minister of hajj had been $70 million to send Afghans to the pilgrimage to Mecca, and that he had pocketed $20 million of the $70 million.

You also have reports about other officials and brothers of key officials in Afghanistan who have been skimming off the top. And, so, it’s really a problem that goes from top to bottom in Afghanistan. And we need to deal with it at both ends.

GWEN IFILL: Mariam Nawabi, there was a report out this week or last week that said that Afghanistan is now the second most corrupt country in the world, behind Somalia, which doesn’t even really have a working central government.

So, how real is that to you? And who, if that’s true, is behind all of this?

MARIAM NAWABI, legal and business Consultant: Well, that is an indicator after assessments are done on the ground. And it is a real indicator.

The problem has grown, actually, since 2001, but part of that has been the large influx of foreign aid dollars that have come into Afghanistan, sometimes without the accountability that’s needed to monitor that aid. So, part of the problem is also on the contracting system that donors have.

And then we have the narcotics trade that has been growing since 2001. These are both adding to the corruption problem.

Corruption is a new problem

Mariam Nawabi
Legal and Business Consultant
If we look back to the '60s and '70s, the central government existed, and it didn't have these problems with corruption back then. There was a system of family honor and name.

GWEN IFILL: Is it the donor money in -- that always taps into natural resources that we're talking about, because we're talking about like copper mines and poppy production? Is that what it is, or did this mind-set for corruption, I suppose, exist prior to this donor money?

MARIAM NAWABI: Afghanistan, if we look back to the '60s and '70s, the central government existed, and it didn't have these problems with corruption back then. There was a system of family honor and name.

And, after 30 years of war, you have the legal institutions that were destroyed, for the most part. And there was a sense of survival of the fittest. It's a warfare kind of environment, and people tried to just do what they could to survive.

But now, with influx of large amounts of money that really don't go to those investment projects -- those are from private companies -- but it's really for the contracting, mainly to provide security. So, from the money we're spending to try to provide security, some of that is ending up in the wrong hands.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Thier, here's the basic problem. If this goes all the way to the top -- and, in fact, there have been many rumors about the Karzai family being involved in some of this -- how reliable a partner, how legitimate a partner is Hamid Karzai for the U.S.?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think you have to look at Karzai through two lenses.

On one hand, we have had some tremendous successes with the Afghan government over the last few years. You have programs like a national solidarity program, national health program, that have taken donor funds, that have been managed by the Afghan government, and that have managed to deliver services all over the country, effectively, often more effectively than we can do ourselves.

But the other side of that story, if that's the good Karzai, is the bad Karzai. It's the Karzai that brings warlords into his government. He now has one of the most notorious as his first vice president. He brought in others to support his vote.

And so I do think that we can work with Karzai, but the central demand in working with Karzai has to be that the leadership, not only that he shows, but that the people he appoints to key ministries and key governorships have to be clean, because, when that happens, it multiplies the number of actors that we can work with successfully.

We don't want to put all our eggs into the Karzai basket. When he was good, it wasn't a good idea. And now that we have seen his bad, it's not a good idea.

So, by appointing new leaders, it allows us to work with a variety of people and to improve the chances that we will have an effect that ultimately turns out well for the Afghan people.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Nawabi, to what extent is one man's patronage another man's corruption? Which is to say, we look at what is business as usual and say, that's corruption, but that's not the way it's perceived, whether it's among the Afghan police or any of these other institutions.

Demanding accountability

J. Alexander Thier
U.S. Institute for Peace
it would something new for the United States government to demand the level of accountability of the Afghan government that we have been discussing now.

MARIAM NAWABI: I think we have to keep in mind that there's different levels of corruption. If we look at the lower end, where someone is taking some bribe here, because the prices in Kabul have skyrocketed -- skyrocketed, just to survive, that's one element of the problem.

But, at the top levels, where people don't need to survive, and they're doing it just to line their own pockets, definitely, there has to be strong action taken. And, of course, Afghanistan has its sovereignty.

But where we have troops and money in the country, I think that we can use that as leverage to ask for benchmarks to be achieved, in order to continue to assist the country. So, I think there are assistance programs for rule of law and also for accountability of how we are spending our money, because we have to keep in mind, most of the funds that go to Afghanistan are not directed to the Afghan government. They're spent by U.S. contractors.

So, there's that problem of, how are we spending our money and how can that be improved to reduce corruption?

GWEN IFILL: Well, if that's true, I wonder, how do you impose benchmarks, when the -- the source of money is coming from so many different places, the delicate political situation that we see Hillary Clinton attempting to manage now on the ground? What -- how much should the United States and should President Obama tie his decision about troops to the elimination or benchmarks about corruption?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: I don't think the decision about troops is about corruption. I think that the most important thing about the president's decision is not about the number of troops. It's about the other types of assistance that we're going to provide to Afghanistan, the civilian side of the equation.

GWEN IFILL: For instance?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well it would something new for the United States government to demand the level of accountability of the Afghan government that we have been discussing now.

It's simply not something that we have been doing for the last eight years. So, getting serious about counter-corruption -- you mentioned in the beginning about putting the counter-corruption commission in place. But the past efforts to do this have faced two problems. One, they haven't been properly resourced, so that they didn't actually have the capacity.

And it's not just money. It's also about us providing our resources, our intelligence resources, technical assistance to make something like that work.

Political will is needed

GWEN IFILL: Is this new commission a real commission, or it's just...

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, it can be. It remains to be seen.

I mean, we need to have the political will, along with President Karzai, to make this work. When you look at the story that came out last week that we have been complaining, the international community has been complaining that Karzai's brother in the south is involved in the drugs trade, and, yet, it was revealed that he may be on the CIA payroll.

So, we also have to hold ourselves accountable that, if we're going to demand of Karzai that he take action against people, we also have to make sure that we are also taking action against people, even if we find them useful.

MARIAM NAWABI: I -- I disagree. I think that the decision to send troops should definitely be tied to these indicators, because, if we send more U.S. troops in a situation where there is rising corruption, the drug trade continues to rise, then the Afghan people will begin to wonder what the United States is there for, and start targeting, you know, U.S. troops and kind of blaming them for this problem as well.

So, I think we have to have a comprehensive approach. The money in Afghanistan has been allocated mainly for military spending. That's been one of the major problems. You have one of the most poor countries in the world. We need to help the people. And we can use our resources more wisely to do that.

On the legal front, these commissions have been around. And the problem sometimes is, they have been politically used to go against opponents, and then some people who end up getting prosecuted are just then taken off the hook.

So, I think we need international assistance, judges who come from outside who help and make sure these decisions are fair, so that, when these prosecutions can happen, people can have confidence that they are going against the right people and that those decisions will be held and the people will be accountable.

GWEN IFILL: Mariam Nawabi, Alexander Thier, thank you both very much.



JIM LEHRER: We have a conversation comparing the Afghan war with Vietnam on our Web site,