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Corruption, Fraud and the Future of US “Success” in Afghanistan October 14, 2009

Posted by Trice Kabundi in Analysis.
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McChrystal’s classified troop request that was recently forwarded to President Obama includes McChrystal’s perspective on the existing levels of corruption and fraudulent activities in the Afghan government and political system. According to McChrystal, the US could send in thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and the war could still be lost due to unchecked rampant corruption.

McChrystal’s observation is correct- corruption is a reality in Afghanistan. The two institutions that Afghans believe are the most corrupt are the police force and judicial system.  Police officers are paid very low wages, have very large families (like most Afghans), and therefore subsidize their income through bribes and corruption.  Abuses and general lack of trust often make the general Afghan population more afraid of the police than the Taliban.  Lack of resources also affects the judicial system, where nearly everyone (judges, lawyers, prosecutors) expects additional funds to expedite hearings. Because the judicial system is largely perceived as unfair, inefficient, bureaucratic, and slow, individuals are increasingly turning to mechanisms that allow them quick means to justice, such as the Taliban. The illicit drug trade further complicates these issues, as it is another means of income in a country with an unemployment rate of 40 percent.

Moreover, Afghans do not trust the federal government.  The Afghan perception of governance is closely tied to the perception of security.   The inability of the Afghan government to provide security makes many question the fundamental utility of the institution.  In districts where the security is viewed as negative or non-existent, the perception of governance is very likely to be negative, regardless of the effectiveness of governance in other areas.  

Equally important, Afghans do not believe that the government is completely representative of all the various tribes, sub-tribes, and clans.  This is compounded by the fact that Afghanistan has a highly centralized government and highly decentralized and fragmented society.  Most of the decision-making takes place in Kabul, and while you have government offices in the 34 provinces, the provinces have no decision making power and are not representative of all who live there.  The sum of lack of representation, weak institutional capacities, inefficiencies, crony appointments, nepotism, and corruption make even the most “democratically” inclined Afghan frustrated with his options.

And now, election fraud.  The recent fraudulent election has only reinforced the local perception of governmental inefficiency and corruption, diminishing what many had hoped would be a legitimizing process for the new government.  But, the Afghans saw it coming.  A Gallup poll taken prior to the August 20th election states that 40 percent of Afghans eligible to vote did not think the elections would be “held in a fair and transparent manner.” A December 2008 poll asked Afghans to name the figure they trusted the most in their country- 22 percent trusted “no one”.

As the executive branch debates US strategy toward Afghanistan, “success” should consider why corruption is so rampant.  Vital questions emerge with regard to the US mission in Afghanistan, such as: what role, if any, should the US play in providing stability in Afghanistan, given the mistrust by the Afghan people?  Does an increased number of US troops help or hurt governance issues?  Can the US help the Afghan government become more effective and less corrupt, or is that something the Afghans must do?

Special thanks to Prakhar Sharma for his help with this blog.

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