There's a joke making the rounds among Afghans: A group of officials go to meet President Hamid Karzai and ask him, "What's your plan for fighting corruption?" Mr. Karzai says, "I will tell you, but first you must give me some money."
Against that cynical backdrop and enormous international pressure, Afghan officials Monday announced the launch of a new anticorruption unit with the help of Interpol and the US. This is the third formal effort to launch a new body aimed at tackling the problem.
In his reelection victory speech, Karzai mentioned by name his current anticorruption czar Mohammad Yusin Osmani. Nearly a year into his job, Mr. Osmani and his Office of Oversight for Anti-Corruption has installed public hotlines and complaints boxes, drafted anticorruption plans with various ministries, and instigated one high-profile takedown of customs agents at the airport. But so far his group has only sent 15 cases to law enforcement agencies, resulting in just a handful of arrests.
The absence of punishment for corrupt officials raises questions about whether the new office will have real teeth either. The problem with the current effort, says Osmani, is that his office lacks the staff and mandate to investigate and prosecute cases. Instead, he must forward what his group finds to the attorney general's office, which is taking months on some cases.
"If this office had the responsibility to gather information, do investigation, and do prosecutions, probably we would be in a much better position in terms of fighting corruption," says Osmani.
Details of the latest anticorruption effort are sketchy, but it appears to be a move to marshal the resources of law enforcement agencies to work together.
"[This] was a reiteration of a joint commitment of all the administrations and institutions that are somehow linked to the chain of justice [to] do whatever possible to fight corruption," says Zamary Bashari, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. He wasn't sure yet of the structure of the new grouping, but suspected it would not have a new leader and would be complementary to Osmani's efforts.
US demands Karzai fight corruption
Since the election, US officials have hammered Karzai over corruption. The American ambassador in Kabul reportedly warned US President Barack Obama against sending more troops because of corruption. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday that the Afghan government must "demonstrate there's no impunity for those who are corrupt" by implementing new US demands.
One such measure, announced Saturday by Attorney General Ishaq Alako, is the establishment of a special court to try senior officials who, under the constitution, cannot be tried by the regular judicial system.
"Everyone knows that in Afghanistan, corruption is at a peak," Mr. Alako told reporters. He promised to stop corruption within six months. He has claimed in the past that he has a list of top officials suspected of taking bribes, and that the country already has put 16,000 people behind bars for corruption.
Examples of Afghan bribes
Yet Afghanistan consistently sits at the bottom of the barrel for corruption, last year ranking 176 out of 180 nations on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Everyone here has personal stories of shakedowns. Even this reporter, when catching a flight leaving Kabul airport, was asked if he would like to cut the long line for a fee.
• Farhad Ghafoor, vice president of business development for the telecommuincations firm Rana, says a university chancellor once threatened to OK his contract bid only if the cost estimate was raised and the surplus passed under the table.
• Noor Agha, a fruit vendor in Kabul, says the police regularly shake him down for bribes so that he can operate his streetside stall.
• Mir Mohammad, an elderly man living on the poor hillsides of the city, says his son must work odd jobs to pay for private classes since the government universities – supposedly free – ask for huge (illegal) "admission fees."
• Haji Mir Rahman, head of Kabul's fruit depot, says police corruption is rampant on the roads. Truckers who drive through the Khyber Pass to Kabul, including Farouq Amjed and Alam Gir, say the number of Afghan police checkpoints asking for money has gone up since the summer. Mr. Amjed says the bribes range from 100 to 1,000 Afghanis ($2 to $20) and that there can be as many as 20 checkpoints on that road.
Osmani says that he has tried to tackle the proliferation of police checkpoints. He worked with several government agencies to crack down on the numbers, set up a complaints hotline, and got several police fired. Bashir Ahmad, a roadside collector for the Transportation Ministry, praised the effort saying "most" of the illegal police checkpoints have been removed; truckers interviwed say nothing has changed.
Building teams to stop bribes
A white-haired man who commands respect across political divides here, Osmani studied public administration in the US and worked for two decades in the Ministry of Finance including stints in the treasury, customs, and auditing departments. In other words, he knows where the skeletons are kept.
Osmani says his group has collected evidence that four Kabul city employees have taken land from people and sold it to others. He forwarded the evidence to the attorney general's office two months ago, and all he has heard is that they are "working on it."
Tired of passing along tips and waiting, Osmani succeeded in "crossing official lines" to get the Ministries of Interior and Finance to set up a joint sting operation at Kabul airport last month. They arrested two customs brokers accused of bribing officials to avoid paying $1 million in excise taxes on a $5.5 million shipment of telecom equipment.
"This was just an example we created to show people that if these institutions cooperate with each other we can achieve a lot," says Osmani. He's careful to say cooperation is good with the attorney general's office and other agencies, but that it's just not quick enough.
Osmani's office has about 80 staff, half of whom are professionals. He says this is less than 30 percent of the people he needs. Because of the limits of his mandate and his staff, he has focused on working with ministries to update procedures where fraud can fester.
Sometimes the bureaucracy has grown overly complex, like in the case of vehicle registrations that require dozens of signatures, leading to the use of corrupt middle-men to facilitate transactions. Other times, like in the case of customs, the adoption of foreign laws changed the traditional systems and created openings for corruption, he says.
After his office helped the Supreme Court implement its anticorruption plan, says Osmani, more than 200 judges and court staff all over Afghanistan were punished or removed.
Some officials argue that corruption is over-estimated, however.
"I am searching around to find one person [working for the city] who is taking a bribe, but I don't see it," says Mir Abdul Ahad Sahebi, the mayor of Kabul. "This latest propaganda about corruption, I personally believe not 2 percent of it is actual facts or figures."
The mayor argues that city amenities cost money and sometimes fees for services get misunderstood as corruption. He also echoes Afghan sentiment that international contracts for development here are the worst offenders.
Osmani doesn't entirely disagree.
"Corruption in Afghanistan is both a reality and an issue of perception," he says. "There are a lot of places in Afghanistan society that are clean and that has not been talked about. Sometimes people tend to exaggerate."