Corruption Ignored, Deplored In Afghanistan The Obama administration is calling on Afghanistan's government to tackle widespread corruption, but some say the international community shares in the blame. Bribery and extortion have become a way of life in the country.
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Corruption Ignored, Deplored In Afghanistan

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Corruption Ignored, Deplored In Afghanistan

Corruption Ignored, Deplored In Afghanistan

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama knows that for the war effort to succeed in Afghanistan, corruption is something that has to be conquered, which is why the administration has been making demands on the government there. As part of our series this week, we look at the challenges of not just containing but also reversing the spread of corruption in Afghanistan.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been hearing about that very subject on the radio in Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

JACKIE NORTHAM: At 7:15, every Wednesday morning, some 10 million Afghans tune into a radio show called �Safaee Shahar,� or "Cleaning of the City." For one hour the hosts field calls from most parts of Afghanistan, people wanting to share the news, their opinions and their complaints.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: The call-in show usually tries to focus on one or two subjects. On this day the topic is corruption and it provokes some lively discussion.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: This caller says Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a crook. His government is corrupt and his brother is a drug kingpin. He says that Karzai needs to clean up his government to set an example for others. Co-host Masood Sanjar says accusations such as these sometimes land him in trouble. He remembers one show last year.

Mr. MASOOD SANJAR (Co-host, �Safaee Shahar�): A person called in and complained about the hospital, and then we are - our show is live, so we (unintelligible) responsible people for - we called the spokesperson for the ministry of health, and that was like a huge thing.

NORTHAM: For Sanjar, that meant being called into the offices of several ministers and threatened with court action. Members of the Afghan government aren't used to being called out on allegations of corruption. Still, bribery and extortion � baksheesh and reshwat in the local language � have become a way of life in Afghanistan. Lorenzo Delesgues, the director of the local think tank Integrity Watch Afghanistan, conducted a study looking at the impact of corruption on people's lives.

Mr. LORENZO DELESGUES (Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan): We calculated that an Afghan family, in average, pay 100 dollar - U.S. dollar per year, in bribe, which is huge. It's like an equivalent of two months of the average salary, a bit more than that.

NORTHAM: Delesgues said many Afghans have come to accept they have to pay for any service, whether it's getting a drivers license, ensuring the flow of electricity, or running a company.

Mr. MOHAMMED NAZIR HABIBZOI (Owner, Trucking Company): (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Mohammed Nazir Habibzoi runs a busy trucking company on the far edge of Kabul. His 250 trucks crisscross Afghanistan and the region, shuttling all sorts of supplies. But it costs him.

Mr. NAZIR: (Through translator) For example, we transport goods from Tajikistan to Kabul. In order not to delay our trucks at the border, we have to pay customs officials, sometimes $50, sometimes $200. We also have to negotiate bribes at the checkpoints along the way. And if they ask for $100, we may settle on 50.

NORTHAM: In 2005, Transparency International, a Germany-based organization that charts corruption in government, rated Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries. Now the group ranks Afghanistan second from the bottom � the only country deemed more corrupt is Somalia.

Mr. ASHRAF GHANI (Former Finance Minister): Afghan corruption, without a question, is a cancer that is eating through our society.

NORTHAM: Ashraf Ghani was Afghanistan's finance minister from 2002 until 2004. During that time he created a new monetary system for the country and launched broad economic reforms. Since then, he says corruption has reached epidemic proportions. Ghani believes this can be reversed if there's the political will to implement strategic policies.

Mr. GHANI: The issue of corruption needs to be addressed. We will not shift from being the second-most corrupt government on Earth to the cleanest in two years. Nobody expects Afghanistan to become Switzerland, but they want to see a pattern of regaining momentum that is credible.

NORTHAM: That is exactly what the Obama administration is looking for as it implements its new strategy and is putting pressure on Karzai to start cracking down on corruption and the drug trade that feeds it. There is a belief that corruption is boosting the Taliban's popularity and that a clean government will help build the trust of the population. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, indicated in recent comments that means going after some big names.

Mr. KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): Ordinary Afghans must be convinced that the powerful can no longer exploit their positions to make themselves wealthy. The appearance of luxurious mansions around Kabul with many expensive cars parked inside, surrounded by private armed guards, is a very worrisome sign that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service. A walk through Sherpur district here in Kabul makes this very clear.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

NORTHAM: The roads here in the Sherpur neighborhood are muddy and rutted, but everything else speaks - shouts - of wealth and affluence. Mirrored windows, enormous Greek columns, and layer upon layer of gold leaf adorn these homes. They belong to government ministers, warlords, suspected drug kingpins, and contractors.

The Sherpur neighborhood is nicknamed Chur-pour � a play on words which means City of Loot.

The people getting rich from drug profits or kickbacks have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. But there is some movement to change that. Anti-corruption units are being set up, and the attorney general's office hinted that up to 15 government ministers may be indicted on corruption charges.

Lorenzo Delesgues, with Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says that would send a strong signal � but it's not enough.

Mr. DELESGUES: And when you try a minister, you just remove an individual, but if the system is not changed, another guy will come with another name and he will do exactly the same work. You need to address the source of the problem.

NORTHAM: Delesgues says the international community must share some of the blame for the soaring corruption here. It's had eight years to help Afghans set up accountability systems and encourage transparency, but did neither.

Others say the international community is contributing to the problem by turning a blind eye to shoddy workmanship by Western contractors and paying bribes to ensure security on the roads, says Delesgues.

Mr. DELESGUES: They've been paying local commanders to make sure that the area that they are working would be safe from any attacks, and this is really very destabilizing.

NORTHAM: Candace Rondeaux, the senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, says those local commanders have ties to the Taliban and other militants.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (International Crisis Group): Because they control the roads, because they control so much of Afghanistan now, they're able to extort money from subcontractors who generally work for Americans or French or Germans. And so there's sort of an extra underground economy to his war that is not yet being discussed.

NORTHAM: In other words, contracts to supply U.S. and NATO bases have become a major source of Taliban revenue, meaning U.S. tax dollars are going directly to the Taliban.

Rondeaux points to a report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year looking at Taliban financing.

Ms. RONDEAUX: And to everybody's surprise, it wasn't poppy that was the main engine for the Taliban economy - you know, it was graft, it was extortion.

NORTHAM: But news that the Taliban is also on the take has done little to dampen the rising anger and resentment at the government's inability to clamp down on the corruption that has gripped Afghanistan.

One way to illustrate the extent of the public's frustration can be found in the middle of a busy street in the center of Kabul.

(Soundbite of traffic)

NORTHAM: A lone traffic cop, his cap pulled down to his eyebrows, whistle clenched in his teeth, busily tries to keep traffic moving. His name is Sabore(ph) and our driver tells us he's famous in the city of four million people for one reason.

Unidentified Man #1 (Cab driver): He's honest.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, rebuilding Afghanistan and why years of reconstruction have left both Afghans and Western donors disappointed.

Unidentified Man #2: We have spent millions and millions of dollars training them how to execute a project. But we don't give them the money to see if they've learned anything.

MONTAGNE: For more of our series on Afghanistan, go to

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