In Afghanistan, Fighting a Legacy of Corruption

Karzai has made numerous pledges to tackle the issue, but the problem has deteriorated since he first took office in early 2002. A poll released last week by Transparency International, an anti-corruption group based in Germany, showed that Afghanistan is now perceived to be the second-most corrupt country in the world behind Somalia — a lawless African country overrun by warlords and pirates.

Ahmadi admits that "petty corruption is everywhere." He said he paid a bribe of about $400 to have electricity turned on in his home a year ago, right before he took his current job.

At the time, he was a top Karzai adviser and warned the utility worker that he could have him disciplined for shaking down a customer. Ahmadi said the worker shrugged off the threat and demanded the money.

Nevertheless, Ahmadi said the kind of pressure coming from Washington lately is not helpful.

"The blaming must stop," he said. "Constructive engagement is better than bullying and arm twisting."

'We have to bribe them all'

Corruption here is not new, but the brazenness of it is.

"Pervasive, entrenched, and systemic corruption is now at an unprecedented scope in the country's history," according to a March report by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Safi, the real estate broker, said government officials today insist on larger sums paid in U.S. dollars, and they barely bother concealing payoffs.

"Now we go to one office, and there are four or five people," Safi said. "We have to bribe them all."

At nearly every step during his efforts to get a new title for the home sale he brokered, government officials came up with bogus problems with the paperwork. The problems threatened to delay or even kill the deal, unless Safi agreed to pay a sherani — a "sweetener" — the Afghan slang term for a bribe.

When he went to the court, Safi said the judge didn't want to take the $2,500 bribe in his chambers. They met at a local restaurant, Kabul Green, where Safi said he pushed the stack of money across the table after they finished eating.

Safi said he also picked up the lunch tab.

Ahmadi, the anti-corruption official, said government officials at every level have their hand out.

At the Education Ministry, students have to apply for diplomas after they complete their final exams. Even that process is laced with corruption, he said.

Requiring 51 signatures

Ahmadi said the government has tried to cut back on opportunities for graft by reducing paperwork or making the transfer of money more transparent.

As an example, he cited recent changes his office made to the process of registering a vehicle in Afghanistan. Until recently, that required about 51 steps and just as many signatures, he said.

That meant greasing a lot of palms. The whole process cost the average citizen about $400 in bribes — the equivalent of the annual wage of an Afghan worker, Ahmadi said.

Now, registering a vehicle requires about five signatures, Ahmadi said. The official fee is paid directly to a bank to minimize the contact citizens have with grasping government officials.

Ahmadi said the changes were resisted by some in the government bureaucracy, where poorly paid workers had grown accustomed to the payola.

"Corruption (sometimes) involves a happy taker and a happy giver," he said. "That makes my job difficult."

Alleged corruption in the higher levels of government doesn't help either.

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