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Turning the Corner on Corruption in Afghanistan

March 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff talks to Ali Jalali, Afghanistan's former interior minister, and Clare Lockhart, a former United Nations adviser to Afghanistan, about whether President Hamid Karzai is following up on his promises to curtail corruption.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we turn to Ali Jalali, a native of Afghanistan who served as his country’s interior minister from 2003 to 2005. He’s now a distinguished professor at the National Defense University here in the U.S. And Clare Lockhart, she’s co-founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, which promotes best practices in development. From 2001 to 2007, she was a United Nations official, an adviser to the Afghan government, and then an adviser to coalition military officials.

We thank you both for being with us.

Ali Jalali, to you first.

You just returned from Afghanistan last week. Do you think that the president’s visit, these stories on the front page of The New York Times reflect a new urgent concern about corruption in Afghanistan?

ALI JALALI, former Afghan interior minister: Well, corruption is a problem that was discussed with the Afghan government in the past.

In fact, the struggle in Afghanistan is as much a fight to defeat the insurgency as a fight to win legitimacy. And corruption undermines legitimacy. Unless the Afghan government actually strengthens legitimacy, it will be very difficult to defeat the insurgency. That’s the importance of fighting corruption in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to — I do want to come to that.

Clare Lockhart, how bad is this corruption in Afghanistan? And we should say you were there as recently as January.

CLARE LOCKHART, co-founder, Institute for State Effectiveness: I think it’s a very serious issue.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index puts Afghanistan at 179 out of 180 countries globally. So, it’s one of the worst countries globally. And I think, even more importantly, what we hear again and again from polls of Afghan citizens across the country, that this is amongst their most serious concerns and issues going forward.

So, we’re not going to see success in the counterinsurgency campaign, but nor over the longer term in Afghanistan are we going to see Afghanistan restoring its sovereignty and addressing the very real problems of poverty and the terrible conditions of people’s lives that set the conditions for this conflict, without addressing this — this accountability problem centrally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is it so bad? Give us some examples. Give us an understanding of what it’s like.

CLARE LOCKHART: Well, I think part of it is the consequence of a war economy. Now, for nearly 30 years the country has been at war, and all the supply lines and the conditions that go into running that war that set those conditions.

But I think, as well, it’s — part of it is personal decisions, whether on the insurgency side or sometimes within the government. Individuals make the wrong choices. But it’s also a systemic issue. And to really understand the problem of corruption, we also have to understand the flip slide of what does accountability actually mean in governance and rule of law?

And in the public finance side, that means following the money. It becomes quite technical. It’s about accountancy. It’s about procurement and budgeting and accounting and auditing, subjects that often diplomats find to be marginal issues. I think we have got to understand that these are the central issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Ali Jalali, we hear Clare Lockhart saying it’s systemic. Has it always been this way in Afghanistan?

ALI JALALI: No. Actually, the — there’s no justification for — to condone the corruption as part of the war economy.

While — we have to put it in perspective. In the past 30 years, Afghanistan has seen conflict, violence and instability. So, corruption is both the cause and result of the instability, which started during the war with the Soviet Union, when competing mujahedeen factions were condoning or actually accepting the function of their — their fighters.

And it continued during the civil war. In 2001, in order to remove the Taliban, the U.S.-led coalition actually made alliance of convenience with the most corrupt networks. That — then, later on, the lack of investment in building institutions created a vacuum, that these networks are actually thriving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, plenty of blame to go around.

Clare Lockhart, how much progress has President Karzai made? He did win reelection saying he was going to do something about all this.

CLARE LOCKHART: I think that he’s now centrally admitted and recognized that it is a core issue that his new administration needs to take on.

We saw him pledge at the London conference in January, he and his group of ministers, that this would be a central issue. So, I think we have seen the expression of intention going forward. There is going to be a number of anti-corruption measures. And I think we can take some optimism that this will be addressed.

The most important asset is the people of Afghanistan. As Mr. Jalali has said, it’s deep actually within the culture of Afghanistan. The demand for law and order and for accountability and justice really is there.

And there are great examples. When we reviewed back in 2002 the laws of Afghanistan, the international judgment was Afghanistan has actually one of the best budget laws in the country. The institutions and the systems are in place. And they have had the tradition of administering the country very well. There are programs like national solidarity programs, block grants to 28,000 villages. These things work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, now that we have the Obama administration clearly leaning and leaning on the Karzai administration, on everybody they can get their hands on over there to do something about corruption, is that the smart course for the administration to be taking to get something done?

ALI JALALI: Well, it is always important to call for fighting corruption.

However, one has to realize that a narrow focus on corruption is not going to work. Appointing some honest ministers or governments is not going to solve the problem. You have to look at the system, as Clare said. The system should be addressed. And the anti-corruption action should be streamlined in all aspects of governance, the rule of law, and actually the military operation in the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and I believe you said this earlier, that you can’t — you can’t think about success in Afghanistan, stabilizing that country, until something is done about corruption.

ALI JALALI: That’s true, because the — this war is over legitimacy. And the people actually will — unless the government win the trust of the people of Afghanistan, it will be difficult or impossible to defeat the insurgency.

And the trust will come by establishing legitimacy, the way that Afghans see a legitimate government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that? I mean, does it — does fixing corruption have to be part of whatever Afghanistan successfully evolves?

CLARE LOCKHART: It has — it has to be absolutely central.

But I think we need to take a much longer-term perspective. Now, that doesn’t mean that the military is going to need to be central over the longer term, but one has to take a longer-term perspective. Institutions do get built over 10 and 20 years’ time. And it’s really going to be about investing in the next generation of Afghans.

And a big mistake was made in 2002 only to educate people up to the age of 11. I don’t think we are going to have the next generation in Afghanistan of accountants and civil servants until we’re going to be in their universities or they are going to be investing out of their own resources in educating the next generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you think the Obama administration is being unrealistic, idealistic in — in pursuing anti-corruption as much as they are?

CLARE LOCKHART: No, I think it’s centrally important. And setting the standards of accountability that, most importantly, the people of Afghanistan expect from their own government is centrally important.

But we need to look at the mechanisms. It’s partly about bringing the World Bank and the IMF back. This is a technical issue that should be dealt by those technical institutions. They need to be central. And I think we need to think about, where are the people who most want accountability? It’s those Afghans. It’s getting that next young generation involved in administering their own country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that the approach that you think is being applied right now?

ALI JALALI: I think that is the approach. I think it will take time.

It is not possible to go and fix the corruption overnight. But it will take time, through building institutions, through creating space for the people to have hope in the future. And, today, what drives people’s behavior, the — the drivers of people’s behavior is survival. The survival goes hand in hand with corruption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that may take longer than the goals of this administration?

ALI JALALI: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to have to leave it there.

Ali Jalali, we thank you very much for being with us.

Clare Lockhart, thank you.

CLARE LOCKHART: Thank you.