Kim Barker’s “Letter from Kabul” in the November 30, 2009 edition of Foreign Affairs (here) confirms what a lot of people have feared: That the Taliban are doing more to fight corruption in Afghanistan than the elected government. Who’s Kim Barker? She’s now a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, she spent nearly five years covering India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. So she knows the turf.
Afghanistan ranked 179 out of 180 on the 2009 Corruption Perception Index, and 7th worst on Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index. What’s the current regime done to deserve such dismal recognition? Plenty. Barker reports stories about a government minister who made $25 million in a single year, and a northern governor, $75 million. “Two of Karzai’s brothers,” she writes, “Mahmoud Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai — and relatives of at least one governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, and the country’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, have either earned money with questionable tactics or been awarded lucrative Western contracts with little fair competition. They have been helped by their relatives’ political clout and suspicious bidding practices.”
That’s the grand corruption. There’s also petty graft everywhere, due mainly to underpaid police and civil servants. Barker says it’s the small stuff that has ruined the government in the people’s eyes. “Safiullah Abidy,” she says, “the 24-year-old manager of a cosmetics shop in Kabul, said that corruption ‘is the most dangerous and bad thing in the country,’ adding that ‘it is the worst memory we have of the last eight years.'”
Regular Afghans are desperate for an alternative. And they’ve got one. Public support is tilting toward the Taliban because it takes corruption seriously. “In 33 of the country’s 34 provinces,” Barker writes, “the Taliban has set up its own anticorruption committees, which allow local Afghans to complain about any injustice, including those inflicted by the Taliban. . . . The Taliban also runs its own courts, which are known for quick justice without the need to pay bribes.”
The Karzai government, by comparison, has no track record of fighting corruption on any level. It set up a drug court a few years ago that’s been cited as a possible model for an anticorruption court. But the drug court, Barker says, is probably itself corrupt; there have only been a few drug-related prosecutions and Karzai pardoned most of the targets. And, Barker says, one of the few reputedly clean judges on the court, Mohammad Alim Hanif, was assassinated more than a year ago and the crime remains unsolved.
Policy-makers say the end game is nation-building. For that to happen you need the rule of law. But if Kim Barker and the people she talks to in Afghanistan have it right, the only rule of law to be found there is coming not from the institutions the Western alliance is supporting, but from the Taliban.