NYT: Cables Describe Pervasive Afghan Corruption

Host Robert Siegel talks to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti about the latest batch of leaked State Department cables they've been poring over, which contain allegations of pervasive corruption in Afghanistan.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

More now from the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables. The New York Times has been poring over those cables, including some that document a particular problem in Afghanistan: corruption.

The Times reports that from hundreds of cables, Afghanistan emerges as a country where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm, and the honest man is a distinct outlier. New York Times Reporter Mark Mazzetti joins us now. And Mark, how corrupt is the Afghan government?

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (Reporter, The New York Times): Well, pretty corrupt, it comes out in these cables. NGO estimates of Afghan corruption put Afghanistan as the third most corrupt country in the world, behind Myanmar and Somalia.

And this is - so this is not a new story, but the cables are very interesting because they just give a lot of detail about individual instances of corruption and what the broad American assessment is of the difficulties of finding honest people in the government in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: Yes, the honest people are the rare exceptions here. You describe at one point an acting governor of a province who, alas, doesn't have enough money to pay the bribe to get the job permanently.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Yes, this is the acting governor of Khost province, who is described by the Americans as a, quote, "a refreshing change." The problem is that he tells them that he needs $200,000 to $300,000 to actually secure the job permanently for himself. So that's obviously a problem.

SIEGEL: You have allegations described in the cables of votes for sale in the parliament. If you want to get confirmed as a minister, you pay off the parliamentarians.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Yes, and there seems to be a very established practice of payment. It's very systematic. And what's interesting in the cables is just sort of it's laid bare about how much of basically an industry this is.

There's another cable where an Afghan official is sort of explaining to the Americans, there's four stages where the Afghans are skimming money from American development projects. The first stage is at the bidding. The second stage is at the application for permits for the project. The third is actually during the construction, and then the fourth is actually at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, they're skimming. So it's soup to nuts.

SIEGEL: Now, I think the most notorious allegation to emerge from this batch of cables, it's been reported already, is the case of the vice president of Afghanistan, who was found to be entering the United Arab Emirates with, the cable says, $52 million in cash.

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. This is the former vice president, Ahmed Zia Massoud, who is the brother of the slain leader of the Northern Alliance, the famous Massoud who fought the Taliban and was killed right before the September 11th attacks.

He was reportedly caught, you know, smuggling $52 million out of the country, which I might say that he denies doing. But the cable says that it's pretty definitive that he tried to get this money out of the country. And it's pretty difficult to smuggle $52 million in cash.

SIEGEL: He evidently protests: You can't do it; it would be a room full of bills. The story's improbable, he says.

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. So he - it should be said that he does dispute this.

SIEGEL: This is from your story today, I'm going to read: The cables lay out allegations of bribes and profit-skimming in the organization of travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj; in the scheme to transfer money via cell phones; in the purchase of wheat seed; in the compilation of an official list of war criminals; and in the voting in Parliament.

It's pervasive, is what you're describing.

Mr. MAZZETTI: It's pervasive, and I think the broader issue here, which they get at in the cables, is how much the United States needs to focus on corruption because, given it's rampant, I mean, is this mission creep for the U.S.? Is it a sideshow, or is this essential?

When the United States started embracing this counterinsurgency strategy, and General Petraeus, who's the top general in charge in Afghanistan now, is the sort of godfather of counterinsurgency, he talks about how the people of a country need to have trust in the government, that ultimately, the goal is getting buy-in from the population towards the government.

And the problem is, is that if there's so much corruption that the people think the government is corrupt, they're never going to accept the government as legitimate, and therefore, you can never really win in counterinsurgency.

But there's this debate in the American government now about are we ever going to get rid of corruption, or should we just sort of set our goals a lot lower. And I think that debate's still ongoing as the United States figures out how much longer it wants to be in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Sure, thanks for having me.

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