KABUL, Afghanistan Dec. 15, 2009— -- 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."
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.
"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.
U.S. Watching to See Who Karzai Names to Cabinet
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.
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.
So with American and British help and pressure, the Afghan government has beefed up the Major Crimes Task Force, designed to go after high level offenders in corruption, kidnapping, and organized crime cases. Despite being 10 months old, only the kidnapping portion of the task force is complete, according to task force officials.
"We're just beginning," says a task force official.
The corruption unit isn't fully trained, but it is prosecuting one major case so far that the half dozen Western officials interviewed for this article all concede is a test of the government's willingness to pursue anti-corruption charges.
Two colonels and one general from Kandahar's border police have been accused of graft and are currently in prison awaiting trial, says a task force member. Two other Kandahar border police officials have fled. The police commanders are the most senior officials – military or civilian – to be prosecuted for corruption, according to both Afghan and Western officials.
"We focus on the police, because there are a lot of problems there, and that's who most civilians interact with on a regular basis," says the task force official.
In addition, at least two ministers are under investigation for corruption.
The mines minister, according to Western and Afghan anti-corruption officials, is being investigated for accepting a $30 million bribe in exchange for awarding a Chinese company a contract worth $3 billion. The allegation was first revealed by the Washington Post.
Corrupt Afghan Government Is Victory for Taliban
The minister for religious affairs, according to an Afghan anti-corruption official, is being investigated for trying to smuggle approximately $400,000 into Afghanistan from Dubai in boxes of crackers.
It is not yet clear whether the Karzai administration has decided to eliminate corruption entirely.
In one widely publicized case, last week the mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sahebi, was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail for improperly awarding a contract. But according to an Afghan government official, Karzai was asked whether the mayor should be jailed, and Karzai said the mayor should be allowed to return to work. The next day, the mayor was behind his desk, giving interviews to journalists.
Afghan anti-corruption officials argue that today there is a greater willingness by senior government officials to crack down on corruption than there ever was in the past.
"Nobody wants to be known as the leader of a corrupt country," says one.
Anti-corruption officials have increased their work and reveal they are working on other cases, the most prominent of which involves customs officials who have defrauded the government out of "billions" of dollars in customs fees by pocketing many of them, said one official, who would not give more details for fear of spoiling the ongoing investigation.
Western officials here hope that a few high profile arrests followed up with jail time can help convince Afghans that the government has decided to crack down on corrupt senior officials.
"You have to provide fear among the top circles," says a member of the High Commission on Oversight.
"Here's the idea: you get the big fish and you make an example of them," says one Western official. "Getting a few government ministers would prove there's a will by the president to clean things up."
But removing the high level offenders is not the final solution, Western and Afghan anti-corruption officials insist.
Laws need to be strengthened so there are ways to investigate, arrest, and punish offenders. A society wracked by decades of war needs to be educated not to accept local officials' demanding petty bribes. And the government needs to have the political will to go after corruption substantially, not just by firing a few corrupt officials.
Delesgues, of Integrity Watch, puts it simply: "You fight corruption, or you lose against the Taliban," he says. "That's it."