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What Afghanistan can learn from the Taliban

They clearly went too far to end corruption, but some tactics worked.

By an American aid worker / April 29, 2009

Kabul, Afghanistan

Corruption in Afghanistan is called baksheesh. The word literally means "to give something up" – as in a sacrifice to the needy. In practice, it refers to any kind of money, good, or service given outside the law in exchange for a desired outcome.

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Baksheesh is more than bribery: It's the economic backbone of most official ministries and many businesses in Afghanistan. Ordinary Afghans know that they must pay it to receive the most basic of social services, such as electricity and irrigated water for their crops. And, most significantly for American taxpayers, foreign agencies admit it is only through baksheesh that any constructive work can be done in Afghanistan.

"It's not that there's corruption in the system," remarked one US State Department official. "It's that the system is corruption."

Unable to rely upon a transparent judiciary, or other government offices, ordinary Afghans are the ones who suffer the most from this system. They must pay government officials for services they should receive for free or as a fixed cost. All of the aid money that the US supplies to this country will amount to little if Afghanistan doesn't eliminate cronyism, nepotism, and the systems of baksheesh that they support – while retaining the ideals of traditional Afghan culture.

To say they went about it the wrong way is an understatement, yet the Taliban proved that corruption could be curbed. As the US and others aid Afghanistan, they should learn from the Taliban and draw on the Koran, Islamic law, and Afghan values to help the country move away from the corrosive system of baksheesh.

The director of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) recently revealed that groups based in Afghanistan usually designate 7 to 10 percent of their annual budgets to pay baksheesh to the officials with whom they conduct business – or to expenses they expect to be "inflated" through illegal means. (In budget reports, these allotments are often called "facilitation fees" or "marketing expenses.")

Consider this: baksheesh amounting to a few million dollars in cash, has been used to keep several former mujahideen commanders from attacking United States forces in key areas. The US military gives Viagra in exchange for intelligence information.

From buying land to renewing visas, to side-stepping taxes, the legal process can be nearly impossible without those handy paper pictures of Benjamin Franklin. Turning a blind eye is an important income-generator.