Corruption, of all things, may be the deciding factor in Washington’s debate about troop deployment and military strategy in Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor said last week: “The concern is that the Afghan government has become so rotted with corruption that it cannot consolidate the gains the U.S. military makes. In other words, the U.S. will never be able to leave Afghanistan unless there’s at least a minimally effective government to help in the near term and then take over in the future.”
The 77,000-member Afghan police force illustrates the problem. Writing in this month’s Atlantic (here), Anup Kaphle said:
Talk with any taxi driver or farmer in Lashkar Gah, and you’ll hear stories about police shakedowns. One farmer from the nearby town of Gereshk, who was transporting his wheat harvest to Lashkar Gah, said that a police officer had taken 1,000 Afghanis ($20) from him the previous week. “They will search your pockets and take money and valuables from you,” he said, “and you can’t say anything because you know you will have to deal with them again the next day.”
Echoing Kaphle’s reporting, the Christian Science Monitor said:
Law and order in the country has collapsed as many police use their posts primarily as a platform for bribe-taking. Even before the election, President Karzai had lost broad public support in Afghanistan because of his government’s inability – or unwillingness – to stifle corruption. Indeed, it is corruption, not insecurity, that most angers Afghans.
Kaphle cites low pay as a cause of police corruption. He says their monthly wages are about $110. That’s a lot higher than the average Afghan income of $25. But it’s also “nearly two and a half times less than that earned by the Afghan National Army.”
Those looking at countries like Afghanistan often assume low pay equals more local graft. Conversely, people living, for example, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Israel, credit high civil-service pay with reducing corruption. It’s simple, they say: government employees won’t risk their cushy jobs and pensions by taking bribes.
Oddly, however, there’s no consistent data linking low wages with increased corruption. Researchers have been frustrated for years by what one called “puzzling empirical evidence on the relationship between corruption and bureaucratic wages.” That is, in countries with high corruption rates, paying bureaucrats more doesn’t always reduce corruption. That means other factors must be at work — tribal or ethnic alliances and rivalries, education, civil rights, press freedom, relationships between local and national leaders, and so on. But no one has found a dependable way to measure those ingredients or quantify how they influence corruption.
Are nations poor because their governments are corrupt, or does a nation’s poverty corrupt its officials? Traditional scholars of economic development hold that once a nation achieves a sufficient level of prosperity, corruption naturally withers as the incentives to cheat diminish. But in recent years, the continuing poverty in countries in Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc spurred revisions to that way of thinking . . . International donors, such as the World Bank, and activist groups, such as the corruption-monitoring organization Transparency International, promote the idea that if only governments in poor countries were honest, their citizens would be much wealthier.
But the debate, he said, suffers from “a paucity of data, especially case studies.”