Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009 3:09 PM
Filed Under: Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghanistan's presidential elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, appear headed for a runoff, but no matter what the outcome there appears little chance it will change the government's pervasive culture of corruption and crisis of confidence.
"Corruption? Corruption? The entire Karzai regime is corrupt!" Dr. Wadir Safi bellows in a fit of anger and frustration. Outside Kabul University were Safi is a long-standing professor of International Law and Politics, a large crowd of students gathers as Safi delivers an impromptu lecture on what many here see as criminal behavior by President Hamid Karzai and his administration.
Safi has little confidence Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah could win in a runoff, but insists, "If Karzai is re-elected his government will be illegitimate. The Afghan people will have "no confidence" in the government, he says.
But Safi, and many others from inside and outside the Afghan government who spoke with NBC News, stress that corruption here goes far deeper than fraudulent elections, and in fact infects virtually every level of the Karzai government and Afghan society.
"It's like the mafia" and Karzai is "Tony Soprano," according to one Afghan lawmaker. "Almost everyone is on the take," from senior government officials, to provincial governors, to the local police.
One of the president's brothers, Walid Karzai, has been publicly accused of facilitating the flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said recently that Karzai should throw Walid out of the country. But Karzai has taken no action against his brother. In fact, in a highly controversial move, Karzai recently ordered five suspected drug dealers released from police custody before they faced any legal action.
One U.S. official involved in counter-narcotics operations tells NBC News that convoys carrying opium and heroin are routinely waved through police checkpoints and border crossings without a second glance. "The drug dealers buy the protection at the top" of the Afghan government.
A share of the money paid in bribes then trickles down to local police commanders and their officers. Even more shocking, U.S. officials claim that on the way back into Afghanistan some of those same convoys are waved through the same checkpoints, this time carrying weapons that likely end up in the hands of the Taliban -- guns that are then turned on American forces.
This kind of government-sanctioned corruption is not confined only to the top tiers of the Afghanistan leadership or security forces, but infects all aspects and levels of society. Business owners are frequent targets of criminal shakedowns, demands by government officials and police for illegal "taxes or tolls." Even common laborers are forced to hand over three days’ worth of pay, the equivalent of about $30, to government officials to get a routine work permit.
In his assessment of the war that he sent to President Barack Obama, Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that "widespread corruption and abuse of power" are as big a threat to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency. There's some evidence that such rampant and blatant government corruption is driving many Afghans into the hands of the Taliban.
U.S. officials also worry that the Afghan people are beginning to believe that American presence here is only making matters, and their lives, worse. In the wake of the disputed elections, there appears to be a growing perception the Americans and their military are intent on "propping up" Karzai's corrupt regime. U.S. officials can argue that could not be further from the truth, but as Gen. McChrystal knows, in any counter-insurgency perception often trumps reality, and without the support of the people the war would most certainly be lost.
This presents the Obama administration with a critical dilemma. If Karzai wins a runoff election, as most Afghans and U.S. officials expect, Obama may be forced to pressure him to clean house -- shake up his cabinet and roster of corrupt provincial governors or the U.S. and its military will pull up stakes and go home. In the short term, neither appears likely.
The Obama administration may consider the consequences of a rapid pullout -- the potential for an Afghan civil war that could create another safe haven for al Qaeda and other extremists -- too great. At the same time, to many Afghans, Karzai and his regime are beyond rehabilitation.
"When you wash a black cat," says Safi, the university professor, "it only gets more black."
As Obama considers sending more American forces into Afghanistan,
prospects could not be much darker.