Pervasive Afghan Corruption Hurts U.S. Efforts

Saifullah Jan says every time he drives his truck from Peshawar to Kabul to deliver fuel for the U.S. military, he has to slip corrupt police $20 to $30 from his own pocket.

Asil Ahmad who is 20 stopped going to school because he says his 11th grade teacher demanded $50 in exchange for a passing grade. He now works and pays for his little sister to attend a less corrupt, private school.

And Abdullah, who only goes by one name, walks next to one of Kabul's most expensive neighborhoods and describes how he lost his own house: a neighbor wanted it and bribed a local government official to change the name on the ownership papers.

"Nothing is done in Afghanistan without money," Abdullah says with a sigh, stroking his white beard. "Without paying, you can't get anything done."

VIDEO: U.S. Pressures Afghanistan to End Corruption
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In one of the poorest countries on the planet, rampant corruption from the top to the bottom of Afghan society cuts deeply into families' incomes and poisons peoples' perceptions of both the Afghan government and the international forces that support it. Every family, according to an anti-corruption group based in Kabul, spends more than 15 percent of their income on bribes.

"It just shows that the government is not legitimate and not able to provide the services that a normal government should provide," says Lorenzo Delesgues, who has worked on corruption in Afghanistan for five years and created Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the group that conducted the study on bribes. He says he was asked for a bribe when he set up his anti-corruption organization.

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"The problem is that because the international community is also linked with the Afghan government – by supporting it, by trying to reconstruct it, rebuilding it -- they both lose their legitimacy. And who's winning from this loss of legitimacy? The Taliban."

The United States, which admits it was not focused on corruption early on in the war, seems only recently to have realized that pervasive corruption can damage its ability to win over the Afghan population -- an essential task in a counterinsurgency strategy. And so over the last few months the U.S. has very publicly rallied against corruption, criticizing the Karzai government for not cracking down, and admitting in private that "it has to get its own house in order," as one Western official put it.

"The priorities have been shifted," says a separate Western official who, like most of those interviewed for this article, agreed to speak about corruption only in return for anonymity. "There's an awareness of how pervasive corruption is, and to make a change to benefit the Afghan people, we need to tackle this head on."

The new emphasis on corruption has resulted in the most direct threat made by the United States against President Hamid Karzai's government since it was first installed almost eight years ago: choose transparent and effective ministers, deputy ministers and governors or risk losing financial support.

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The idea behind the threat, U.S. officials say, is that money should be poured into the ministries that are better able to provide services to Afghans, therefore raising the level of legitimacy of the government.

"We are now certifying agencies. We're not going to put a penny of American assistance into any agency that is not certified," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

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