Nov. 23, 2009 -- 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."
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.
Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been at the center of allegations that he was involved in drug trafficking.
In a report citing unidentified sources, The New York Times said that the younger Karzai was a suspected opium trafficker and had received payments from the CIA.
Ahmed Wali Karzai told the Associated Press in a recent interview that the allegations were untrue and that his accusers were political and tribal enemies.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on her trip to Kabul for Karzai's inauguration last week that she was concerned about some of the people he has surrounded himself with.
During his campaign, Karzai allied himself with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord.
Obama told CNN in July that he had ordered an investigation into whether the Bush administration properly investigated allegations that Dostum killed hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001.
At his inauguration last week, Karzai said he would require senior government officials to register their assets and would dismiss any government officials involved in drug trafficking.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has said the government needed to follow up rhetoric with results. "Words are cheap," he said. "Deeds are required."
Doctor who refuses bribes
Public frustration with government extortion is increasing.
Tolo Television, a commercial station in Afghanistan, has started to encourage people to videotape public officials, such as police, taking bribes.
They have already received a couple of videos of police accepting bribes.
People are still afraid to report bribery, said Humanyoon Daneshyar, an anchor on a news magazine show. They fear being identified and are not confident the government could protect them.
Even when someone is caught, prosecution is difficult.
Ahmadi said his office had identified three traffic office workers who continued to take bribes despite the changes. The workers are well-connected, making firings difficult.
"We will have to do it in a tactful way," Ahmadi said.
Ahmadi said he would like to tackle construction permits next. It takes about six months and some 200 signatures to get a permit now, he said.
Meanwhile, some citizens are taking matters into their own hands.
Rahimullah Safi, a physician at Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, said patients and their families are harassed every time they walk through the hospital's front door by police and staff seeking bribes to get them admission or treatment.
"Corrupt people have surrounded the government," Safi said. "They are in charge. This is reality."
Safi, a thin, 40-year-old dressed in a threadbare sport coat, said he refuses to take payoffs even though many of his colleagues do.
"I studied medicine not to get rich, not to take bribes," he said. "I studied medicine to help people."