US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished
The lives of four Afghans provide a lens on how America's longest conflict has changed a nation – and the divisions and dangers that persist.
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Bashir was grateful to see the Taliban leave. But this doesn't make him a fan of the Karzai government, which replaced the Taliban. "If anyone wants to improve themselves, they have to do it themselves," he says. "From the government, you can expect nothing. Only those who are relatives of some official receive any help. Otherwise, you have to pay a bribe."Skip to next paragraph
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Corruption may be the most talked-about subject in Afghanistan, and one that many see as the largest impediment to creating a country that can stand on its own. While corruption has existed in Afghanistan for centuries, it has become a full-scale industry since the arrival of American troops and Western aid dollars.
For many Afghans, the problem isn't corruption itself, but rather the sense that corrupt officials have ruined the country's best chance at rebuilding by siphoning off vast amounts of the money the US has spent here over the past decade. No paper trail exists, but Afghans can see where the funds have gone – and haven't.
In rich neighborhoods like Shirpoor and Wazir Akbar Khan, the politically well-connected live in glittery mansions, while the streets in front of these opulent homes remain unpaved. Hospitals have been built, but doctors are often off running lucrative private clinics. Schools have been erected, but many teachers don't show up for work because they are paid so little. Cabinet ministers have been linked to major drug scandals or bank collapses, but none have been charged with any crime.
The problem, says Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Afghanistan, an anticorruption watchdog group, is that Afghanistan's Western donors have a political incentive to support the Afghan government and show results for the billions of dollars that they spend. But for security reasons, Western donors are often unable to monitor how the aid groups and government agencies spend the funds. So much of it is simply pocketed by corrupt officials.
"Last year, when the USAID [US Agency for International Development] budget for Afghanistan was cut by 40 percent, that was good news for us," says Mr. Torabi. "The money created public corruption. The donors have to spend billions to develop this country, and they don't have the capability of overseeing how the money is spent. If there was less aid and more oversight, people would use it better."
Najib Manalai, an independent political analyst who is often sympathetic to the Karzai government, believes it's wrong to assume that the Afghan government has done nothing with the billions in foreign aid money it has received. Eight million children are now in public schools. Some 44,000 students have been accepted by universities. Maternal and infant mortality rates are dropping because of the 15,000 clinics that have been built. More than 12,000 miles of roads have been created.
Yet he sees corruption as a corroding force, chipping away at the Afghan people's faith in their government and their willingness to back the Karzai regime if it comes under attack.
"If the government doesn't do its job, it's corruption," says Mr. Manalai. "If it appoints incapable people to high positions of power, it's corruption. If elite people grab land, it's corruption. When Afghan people are trying to get their ID cards and you have to pay a small bribe, it's corruption. It may be small money, but it makes a lot of unhappy people."
No one knows how much of the $517 billion the US has cumulatively spent in Afghanistan has been misused. Statistics wouldn't tell the full picture, anyway, since corruption usually involves manipulating statistics to hide illicit gain. But if you add up the anecdotes of schools or clinics built with shoddy materials; of politicians who have used their positions to steal public land, siphon off money for personal use, or to protect criminal enterprises; and of civil servants who have taken bribes; you get a troubling view of Afghanistan's political culture.