Letter From Kabul: Solving Afghanistan's Problems

What the United States Must Overcome in Afghanistan

Part I: Corruption

In his inauguration speech, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed the importance of the country's fight against corruption and spoke of his commitment to ending "the culture of impunity and violations of law." Afghans, however, reacted warily: they are waiting to see action, which has been in short supply in Afghanistan. Corruption has grown around Karzai like a fungus, touching almost every ministry and office. As Karzai begins his new term, this pervasive culture of graft is blamed for driving a wedge between Afghans and their government -- even driving some toward the Taliban.

Western officials have demanded that the Afghan government take decisive action against corruption, but such pressure may be counterproductive. Karzai has grown increasingly resentful of Western criticism, both because such treatment comes across as disrespectful in Pashtun culture and because Karzai believes that standing up to the United States will make him more popular with Afghans. Pressuring Karzai too often simply pushes him into a defensive crouch.

In a television interview in early November, a week after his former challenger Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of the presidential race, effectively canceling the runoff, Karzai appeared vague about corruption inside his government and seemed to view it as a phenomenon inflicted from the outside. He blamed overseas interests for waste, saying that much of the country's corruption stems from large contracts initiated by foreign governments and companies. "For that sort of corruption, it's the international community that also shares responsibility with us," he said.

For Afghans, corruption falls into three categories: first is petty corruption by lower-level government employees who are looking out for their own survival. Next is large-scale corruption, which is committed by ministers and relatives of top Afghan officials involved in lucrative international contracts or the drug trade. Last is what Karzai described as Western-driven corruption, which begins with the foreign contractors who live conspicuously well in Kabul. They subcontract out work to local Afghans, who then make their own subcontracts with other Afghans. The end result is that the bulk of every aid dollar is wasted. But this, at least by Western standards, is technically legal -- a seeming loophole that many Afghans find absurd, if not hypocritical and offensive.

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