[A-List] For Afghans, a Price for Everything, and Anything for a Price
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Thu Jan 1 19:48:13 MST 2009
January 2, 2009
For Afghans, a Price for Everything, and Anything for a Price
By DEXTER FILKINS
KABUL, Afghanistan — When it comes to governing this violent,
fractious land, everything, it seems, has its price.
Want to be a provincial police chief? It will cost you $100,000.
Want to drive a convoy of trucks loaded with fuel across the country?
Be prepared to pay $6,000 per truck, so the police will not tip off
Need to settle a lawsuit over the ownership of your house? About
$25,000, depending on the judge.
"It is very shameful, but probably I will pay the bribe," Mohammed
Naim, a young English teacher, said as he stood in front of the
Secondary Courthouse in Kabul. His brother had been arrested a week
before, and the police were demanding $4,000 for his release.
"Everything is possible in this country now. Everything."
Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid,
the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and
graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President
Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban
government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more
than the enrichment of those who run it.
A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest
levels of the Karzai administration, including President Karzai's own
brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country's opium
trade, now the world's largest. In the streets and government offices,
hardly a public transaction seems to unfold here that does not carry
with it the requirement of a bribe, a gift, or, in case you are a
beggar, "harchee" — whatever you have in your pocket.
The corruption, publicly acknowledged by President Karzai, is
contributing to the collapse of public confidence in his government
and to the resurgence of the Taliban, whose fighters have moved to the
outskirts of Kabul, the capital.
"All the politicians in this country have acquired everything — money,
lots of money," President Karzai said in a speech at a rural
development conference here in November. "God knows, it is beyond the
limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen."
The decay of the Afghan government presents President-elect Barack
Obama with perhaps his most underappreciated challenge as he tries to
reverse the course of the war here. Mr. Obama may be required to save
the Afghan government not only from the Taliban insurgency —
committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so — but
also from itself.
"This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow
government has taken over," said Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance
minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had
been taken over by drug traffickers. "The narco-mafia state is now
completely consolidated," he said.
On the streets here, tales of corruption are as easy to find as kebab
stands. Everything seems to be for sale: public offices, access to
government services, even a person's freedom. The examples mentioned
above — $25,000 to settle a lawsuit, $6,000 to bribe the police,
$100,000 to secure a job as a provincial police chief — were offered
by people who experienced them directly or witnessed the transaction.
People pay bribes for large things, and for small things, too: to get
electricity for their homes, to get out of jail, even to enter the
Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption.
But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in
either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a
German organization that gauges honesty in government, ranked
Afghanistan 117 out of 180 countries in 2005. This year, it fell to
"Every man in the government is his own king," said Abdul Ghafar, a
truck driver. Mr. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police
who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several
in a day.
Nowhere is the scent of corruption so strong as in the Kabul
neighborhood of Sherpur. Before 2001, it was a vacant patch of
hillside that overlooked the stately neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan.
Today it is the wealthiest enclave in the country, with gaudy,
grandiose mansions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Afghans refer to them as "poppy houses." Sherpur itself is often
jokingly referred to as "Char-pur," which literally means "City of
Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Sherpur is that many of the
homeowners are government officials, whose annual salaries would not
otherwise enable them to live here for more than a few days.
One of the mansions — three stories, several bedrooms, sweeping
balconies — is owned by Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a former attorney general
who made a name for himself by declaring a "jihad" against corruption.
After he was fired earlier this year by President Karzai, a video
began circulating around town showing Mr. Sabit dancing giddily around
a room and slurring his words, apparently drunk. Mr. Sabit now lives
in Canada, but his house is available to rent for $5,000 a month.
An even grander mansion — ornate faux Greek columns, a towering
fountain — is owned by Kabul's police chief, Mohammed Ayob Salangi. It
can be had for $11,000 a month. Mr. Salangi's salary is unknown; that
of Mr. Karzai, the president, is about $600 a month.
Mr. Ghani, the former finance minister, said the plots of land on
which the mansions of Sherpur stand were doled out early in the Karzai
administration for prices that were a tiny fraction of what they were
worth. (Mr. Ghani said he was offered a plot, too, and refused to
"The money for these houses was illegal, I think," said Mohammed Yosin
Usmani, director general of a newly created anticorruption unit.
Often, the corruption here is blatant. On any morning, you can stand
on the steps of the Secondary Courthouse in downtown Kabul and listen
to the Afghans as they step outside.
One of them was Farooq Farani, who has been coming to the court for
seven years, trying to resolve a property dispute. His predicament is
a common one here: He fled the country in 1990, as the civil war
began, and returned after the fall of the Taliban, only to find a
stranger occupying his home.
Yet seven years later, the title to Mr. Farani's house is still up for
grabs. Mr. Farani said he had refused to pay the bribes demanded by
the judge in the case, who in turn had refused to settle his case.
"You are approached indirectly, by intermediaries — this is how it
works," said Mr. Farani, who spent his exile in Wiesbaden, Germany.
"My house is worth about $50,000, and I've been told that I can have
the title if I pay $25,000 — half the value of the home."
Tales like Mr. Farani's abound here, so much so that it makes one
wonder if an honest man can ever make a difference.
Amin Farhang, the minister of commerce, was voted out of Mr. Karzai's
cabinet by Parliament earlier last month for failing to bring down the
price of oil in Afghanistan as the price declined in international
markets. In a long talk in the sitting room of his home, Mr. Farhang
recounted a two-year struggle to fire the man in charge of giving out
licenses for new businesses.
The man, Mr. Farhang said, would grant a license only in exchange for
a hefty bribe. But Mr. Farhang found that he was unable to fire the
man, who, he said, simply bribed other members of the government to
"In a job like this, a man can make 10 or 12 times his salary," Mr.
Farhang said. "People do anything to hang on to them."
Many Afghans, including Mr. Ghani, the former finance minister, place
responsibility for the collapse of the state on Mr. Karzai, who, they
say, has failed repeatedly to confront the powerful figures who are
behind much of the corruption. In his stint as finance minister, Mr.
Ghani said, two moments crystallized his disgust and finally prompted
him to quit.
The first, Mr. Ghani said, was his attempt to impose order on Kabul's
chaotic system of private property rights. The Afghan government had
accumulated vast amounts of land during the period of Communist rule
in the 1970s and 1980s. And since 2001, the government has given much
of it away — often, Mr. Ghani said, to shady developers at extremely
Much of that land has been sold and developed, rendering much of
Kabul's property in the hands of unknown owners. Many of the
developers who were given free land, Mr. Ghani said, were also
involved in drug trafficking.
When he proposed drawing up a set of regulations to govern private
property, Mr. Ghani said, he was told by President Karzai to stop.
" 'Just back off," he told me,' " Mr. Ghani said. "He said that
politically it wasn't feasible."
A similar effort to impose regulations at the Ministry of Aviation,
which Mr. Ghani described as rife with corruption, was met with a
similar response by President Karzai, he said.
"Morally the question was, am I becoming the fig leaf to legitimate a
system that was deeply corrupt? Or was I there to serve the people?"
Mr. Ghani said. "I resigned."
Mr. Ghani, who then became chancellor of Kabul University, is today
contemplating a run for the presidency.
Asked about Mr. Ghani's account on Thursday, Humayun Hamidzada, a
spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said he could not immediately comment.
The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the
future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans like
Mr. Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.
"I won't do it," Mr. Farani said outside the courthouse. "It's a
matter of principle. Never."
"But," he said, "I don't have my house, either, and I don't know that
I ever will."
Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting.
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