Pervasive Afghan Corruption Hurts U.S. Efforts

More than a year ago the U.S. Agency for International Development began certifying ministries to determine which should receive direct American aid. So far USAID has certified only three, US officials say: the Ministry of Public Health, the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, and, most recently, the Ministry of Finance. Three months from now U.S. officials say they expect to be able to certify another three ministries.

When offices within ministries are found to be corrupt, the U.S. is working with officials to reform them before the entire ministry can be certified.

U.S. officials are watching intently to see who Karzai chooses as his new cabinet ministers. Without good ministers, Western officials say, Afghanistan cannot be improved.

"The Afghans realize that the Westerners are losing public support, and if they don't fight corruption, we might not be around as initially promised," said a Western official.

In a country that has not had robust central leadership for decades, a corrupt local official is often the only interaction that most Afghans have with the Karzai government. An Integrity Watch survey found that 60 percent of Afghans believed Karzai has led the most corrupt government in the last 40 years.

"In so many places, the government is irrelevant to the people except when it's corrupt," Delesgues says. "It actually erodes people's lives."

That can be on a very personal level, like the case documented by the Afghan High Office of Oversight of the father who was asked to pay to release his son from jail, even though the son had finished serving his time.

"It has been one month and still they won't let my son go," the father says in a documentary produced by the oversight office. "They harass us for money."

The problem is massive, but Delesgues and other officials argue the West has not paid attention to it. He said when he started his group five years ago, U.S. embassy officials told him that corruption represented greed and "it was a waste of time to go after it."

At Least Two Afghan Ministers Under Investigation for Corruption

"For years they have tried not addressing corruption. What they do have from it? They have lost," he says.

U.S. officials admit things have changed. But they also admit making changes will not be easy. "There's no place to go but up," admits an anti-corruption official.

While many of the poorest in Afghanistan suffer from corruption, there's a widely held belief that senior officials are getting away with being corrupt, taking cuts from the illegal drug trade, stealing government money, even stealing coalition money.

The Afghan government's effort to fight corrupt senior officials has been led by the High Office of Oversight, which, according to a Western official, is "not fit for purpose." The office's staff members admit they have not been given enough power or resources to enforce their mandate. Ministers and other senior members of the government are required to submit their assets to the office, but the office has no ability to force an official to do so.

In part, there has been no political will to beef up the office and allow it to go after senior officials.

"Everyone who's corrupt has the backing of someone powerful," says a senior Afghan anti-corruption official.

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