In Afghanistan, Fighting a Legacy of Corruption

KABUL — When President Obama demanded this month that Afghan President Hamid Karzai tackle government corruption, no one welcomed the news more than Kabul real estate broker Haji Asadullah Safi.

Sitting in his cramped storefront shop on a crowded street here, Safi used a calculator to add up all the bribes he paid to government officials during the recent sale of a home.

Safi said he gave $200 to a clerk at the district office, $3,000 to be shared among three workers at the central municipal office and $500 to a Finance Ministry official. Then he carried the paperwork to the municipal court, where a judge demanded $2,500 to file it.

After three weeks, and more than $6,000, he had his title. "This is our way of doing business," Safi said. "It's frustrating."

Most of the attention given to corruption in Afghanistan has focused on allegations of crooked members of Karzai's government and inner circle, including a brother accused of drug trafficking. Yet many Afghans say it's the smaller crimes — the corrupt traffic cop, the doctor who demands a bribe in return for treatment — that are doing the most to erode confidence in the Afghan state at a time when Washington is trying to foster a working government here.

"It is a threat that strikes at the core of the nation, threatening the legitimacy of the government," said Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy head of Karzai's anti-corruption office.

Ahmadi said graft is deeply entrenched in local culture, and therefore extremely difficult for the government to stop. But others warn that unless Karzai makes rapid progress in tackling corruption, whether it's in the presidential palace or on the street just outside, he risks pushing even more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. It makes it difficult for the United States to take the high road publicly against the Taliban when it is associated with a government that is viewed as corrupt.

"People say, 'We will go to the Taliban to solve our problems,' " said Massood Sanjer, a popular radio talk show host, who regularly discusses the topic on his call-in show. "People are now tying lack of security to corruption."

Obama publicly urged Karzai to tackle the issue shortly after he won a second term in office — following an election plagued by so much corruption that one in three ballots cast for Karzai was later determined to be fraudulent by the United Nations.

The White House has said Karzai's handling of the corruption issue, especially in the opening weeks of his new term, will be a central factor in Obama's deliberations over whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama said he will announce his decision in the coming weeks, likely after Thanksgiving.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said: "If we don't get a level of legitimacy and governance, then all the troops in the world aren't going to make any difference."

Karzai "has got to take concrete steps to eliminate corruption," Mullen said in a speech this month. "That means that you have to rid yourself of those who are corrupt, you have to actually arrest and prosecute them."

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