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.
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.
Would granting higher salaries to government employees reduce demands for this type of baksheesh? Sure. But a lasting solution would have to address two major problems: first, the government's lack of transparency, and second, the lack of checks and balances in the rule of law. Both are complicated by Afghanistan's tribal system, and the fact that attitudes we might call "cronyism" or "nepotism," might be considered "honorable" by an Afghan.
A single baksheesh results in gains for many individuals beyond the one who asks for the payment. These outlying beneficiaries are often close friends and family members. With these networks to support them, officials are more likely to demand baksheesh – and less likely to be punished for doing so.
Meanwhile, the Karzai administration asks international organizations and foreign militaries to provide the social services it should be offering. The Afghan government is little more than a fragile image propped up by the US military, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and international partners. It has offices and ministries, positions, titles, and payrolls – all of which look good on paper, for democracy fabrication. But its officers lack the will to actually run anything.
Without a systemic adjustment, this will not change. To be sure, making such change will be a delicate task. But there are lessons to learn from the Taliban. Under their hard-handed rule, governmental corruption, and crime were virtually eliminated. True, this came at great cost, not least to human rights and women's rights in particular.
But the Taliban's policy of zero tolerance worked. The streets were safe and cleaned regularly. The police were harsh, but honest. Doors to Afghan homes and cars were left unlocked, without fear of theft. Many warlords stopped fighting. The Taliban maintained a network of community mobilizers who used Koranic verses to shame farmers out of poppy production while also introducing alternative crops.
Again, the Taliban went too far. But America can learn from what worked, and avoid what didn't. America can help the Afghan government enforce a zero tolerance rule for baksheesh among officials in the executive and judicial branches. President Hamid Karzai and his cronies can be replaced. Progressive schools for Islamic law can be established to support the judiciary.
International funding can be withheld from corrupt ministries and channeled into those with track records of integrity as a reward. International NGOs and USAID contractors can be prosecuted for paying bribes. Local commanders who request bribes from international forces can be shamed by involving local Islamic leaders – and, where necessary, shamed publicly on Afghan radio and television.
In tribal cultures, shame works. In modern cultures, education works. The Taliban used one and not the other. America must use both.
This essay is written by an American aid worker living in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2005. He wishes to remain anonymous because of threats.