By Michael P. Cohn
Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghan President on November 19th for another five years. He did so under significant scrutiny from foreign leaders who have recently stepped up pressure on the Afghan leader to act effectively against corruption. Corruption has turned into the key issue Karzai’s government must address as it moves ahead in its second term, but he is likely to feel there is little he can actually do without suffering serious repercussions. At the same time, the international community may be insisting on too much too soon without appreciating the situation of corruption in the Afghan context and the implications of real reform.
In his inaugural speech, he insisted his new government is committed to serious reform and would be immediately launching a new anti-corruption unit, headed by his Interior Minister, and with the support of the FBI, Scotland Yard, EUROPOL, and other NATO/ISAF elements. While there seems to be an atmosphere of genuine intent on the part of officials in Kabul, this is the third attempt at such an organ during Karzai’s tenure.
In a matter of days, investigators in this new task force have already compiled sufficient evidence to begin charging several top officials. Fifteen current and former Afghan ministers are now under investigation by the Afghan Attorney General over allegations of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. While a few under investigation are former ministers now living in exile outside of Afghanistan, at least three are in the current Cabinet. President Karzai, however, continues to remain unwilling to issue any warrants.
Under the Afghan Constitution, a special court is needed to prosecute a Cabinet member. Such a court has not yet been established, although officials claim to be working towards its imminent readiness. Conveniently, Karzai has the authority for approving the judges for these special courts. Once an investigation is complete, it is then supposed to be submitted to these special-court judges for immediate proceedings. As it stands now, the president only has to grant his approval and the trials can begin. The problem, however, is that Karzai is all-too-keenly aware that the institutions and structures of official governance in Afghanistan, rightly or wrongly, have been built on dubious compromises and unsavory alliances with regional power-players and local strongmen since even before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and as such, he can do little to address the issue without threatening a further destabilization of the country.
Gaining a modicum of control and influence in the absence of sufficient central authority in many areas throughout the country has depended on co-opting existing networks of local patronage and significantly strengthening them with massive amounts of international aid funneled through the various national ministries. Attempting to break up this system of sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, loosely connected, regionally-based networks could seriously threaten the stability of the country and could lead to a total collapse of the government. Karzai’s reluctance to move ahead with the trials of Cabinet officials not only involves his own culpability for the present circumstances, as many accuse him of being just as focused on centralizing his own patronage networks as any of those he might grant approval to prosecute, but also because he knows the basis by which his government tentatively retains power and thus the insurmountable difficulties involved in any attempt to reform it.
During the development of the new Afghan government in 2001-3, ministries were split between the foreign-educated technocrats, remaining political elite, regional warlords, and militia commanders. While the technocrats and modernizers focused their efforts in some ministries such as Finance and Rural Rehabilitation and Development with some notable successes, the elite and warlords used the remaining ministries and the presidency to compete against each other in the formation of extensive patronage networks among the country’s local and regional power holders. Strongmen also populated the ranks of district governors. As they themselves were under very heavy pressure to reward their followers with jobs and positions of influence, and given that ministers, governors, and chiefs of police had the power to make appointments in the structures that they were leading, the state administration was soon full of their clients.
The former militia commanders and regional power-players were incorporated into the new government after the fall of the Taliban and were basically encouraged to run their own “fiefdoms,” loosely connected to each other or to Kabul. These warlords now controlled and inevitably kept much of the tax and customs revenue in the provinces under their control, some collecting monthly emoluments that are unimaginable even to many westerners, using the funds for both personal enrichment as well as to strengthen their own burgeoning patron-client networks. With their attention focused on Iraq, the US administration had little intention of conducting a massive long-term state-building effort in Afghanistan, and as a result, the next round in Afghan modernization was ultimately entrusted to a collection of foreign-educated technocrats which would have to cooperate and share significant power with these warlords, regional power-players, local militias and regional forces.
The perpetual difficulties of extending sufficient government authority throughout the country has made this reliance on local leaders loosely connected to Kabul the default form of governance structure for most of Afghan history. Like many aspects of Afghanistan, patterns of historical continuity persist invariably here; the players change but the relationships and dynamics always seem to remain the same. The three main limitations of government here, i.e. an insufficient level of expertise among the officialdom, insufficient security presence throughout the country, and incessant corruption have undermined almost every attempt at governance in Afghanistan. Drug money and other illicit commodities, control of transit highways, and government patronage have always been and continue to remain the currency of power. Compromises, pay-offs, and extensive networks of patronage and clientelism have always been the instruments by which temporary influence is purchased and violence is controlled. A constant influx of wealth from invading armies and international supporters has always tended to skew various aspects of the economy and create a dependence on foreign aid.
As such, Afghanistan has a rather unique legacy of poor governance. While several causative factors of the present crisis of corruption can be attributed to newly emergent conditions, relationships, and behaviors, Afghanistan’s political culture helps to explain the prevalence of corruption, in that its patterns of social and political interaction are often incompatible/incongruent with the requisite behavior and disposition for modern, systematic, and bureaucratic self-governance. Attempts at forming a modern state in Afghanistan have always fallen victim to the same dynamics, forged by the very relationships needed to establish the initial conditions of peace required for long-term state building. Officials of all ministries have often been unqualified. Recruitment into civil service and police has always been driven by nepotism and favoritism, while efforts to supervise or instill discipline have often been abandoned before any real progress could be made. Patron-client relations are a traditionally dominant aspect of many tribal cultures in Afghanistan, and furthermore, it may be argued that there remains amongst many Afghans a long-standing shared lack of understanding and disregard for the advantages of bureaucratized systems of government. Afghan tribal society has consistently shown a tendency to be extraordinarily resistant and indeed hostile to the unifying political discipline required for nation building. Such cultural traditions have emphasized inward-looking values, kinship and favoritism, loose authority patterns, and lax social control, which has made the pursuit of personal financial gain an enduring aspect of Afghan political culture.
Most prior Afghan regimes kept the allegiance of the powerful “chiefs” by conferring on them various military honors, positions of power, and preference in distribution of booty and by involving them closely in his extensive campaigns of conquest. Organized governments, whether Mogul, Afghan, or British, learned through experience that the payment of bribes and blackmail (euphemistically labeled subsidies or subventions) was the touchstone of tribal diplomacy. Replacement of kinship with clientage as the base of political organization and a patrimonial politics with a mere façade of bureaucratic regularity has almost always been the end result.
Corruption in Afghanistan is both a reality and an issue of perception. It is a cultural phenomenon as much as it is a historical and political one. There are multiple old and new conditions fostering the same old problems. While the international community has the right to insist on more accountability, good faith, and real effort on the part of Afghans, the situation must also be understood within the context of several decades of constant war, coupled with increasing social and civil breakdown, irregular financing of the conflict from various sources, growing tensions among ethnic and tribal groups, and the expansion of informal/illicit economic activities. Hence in the Afghan context, corruption has been intimately linked with the development and destruction of the state. Since 2001, the burgeoning drug economy (combined with unintended adverse side effects of counter-narcotics efforts), large inflows of aid, and even the revived economy (in that regulations and red tape provide further scope for illicit gain) have greatly increased opportunities for corruption. And while it must be said that not all Afghan civil servants are corrupt, the traditions of bribe taking and informal gratuities, coupled with little oversight or incentive to change, and extremely low pay in comparison to governors, ministry heads, and their business partners, have encouraged a sense of entitlement, lawlessness, and sanctioned plunder, which has trickled down to the lowliest district administrator and ANP recruit.
The practices developed under the new government in Afghanistan over the past eight years are not new phenomena, and they have now not only delegitimized the government ( as it had done for previous regimes) but further deteriorated a sense of rule of law and community responsibility that had already suffered from decades of progressive social disintegration . Most unfortunately, the endemic corruption has progressively eroded the once palpable hope and enthusiasm Afghans shared in their new government when it was first formed after the fall of the Taliban. Since then, multiple forms of corruption have emerged throughout government ministries and up and down the hierarchy. Each ministry, at each level and in its own way, has contributed to an atmosphere of disappointment, alienation, and a dangerous decline in public confidence. Although we are still very far from a popular uprising against the Karzai regime, it would not be wholly surprising to see public demonstrations in Kabul and other urban centers over the next year.
When recently responding to criticisms from the international community about addressing corruption in his government, Karzai has continued to emphasize concerns for Afghan stability. What he really means by this is that if he goes after the corrupt officials in his government, he is likely to lose any control he may have left. Thus, when considering how entrenched and institutionalized these practices have become, and further considering the historical legacy of failed attempts at reform in Afghanistan, several critical questions arise: What can Karzai actually do to fix the problem? Is there anything he can do? Could he clean up his government without addressing his own failures and not expect to lose more, if not all control of his country? Should he relinquish his own patronage networks and would that have any influence over others? Governors and other officials have simply ignored previous efforts to reform and minimize embezzlement and some of the more egregious practices.
Real reform of the system will ultimately threaten the accumulated power of these individuals within their spheres of influence. This both leaves open the possibility that individuals and their networks might separate from or possibly even rebel against the government.
Similar anti-corruption reforms have been tried many times in Afghan history, under many different regimes. The nature of the system that develops is almost always the same, and without substituting the networks of political and personal enrichment for something else, the result for every Afghan leader, even with the best of intentions, is to see a subsequent decline of stability. When King Amanullah, in the early twentieth century attempted to reform the intricate system of payment and support through which power was transmitted in Afghan tribal society at that time, he was not only threatening the economic position of many of his loyal supporters but was also unwittingly undermining his own political “machine” without providing an alternative system of financial and political rewards. Karzai faces the same dilemma. Reforms were popular under Amanullah, as will also be any high-profile prosecutions Karzai might conduct. Unfortunately as happened in the past, such efforts will be vigorously opposed by those individuals who hold local political power.
With the exception of a few idealists among the Young Afghans, most of Amunallah’s officials turned out to be more interested in the lining of their own pockets and maximizing their personal and family power than in nation-building or modernization of the state. With the same few exceptions of idealists, modernists, and technocrats, many current Afghan officials have apparently behaved no differently. Ultimately King Amanullah was forced to relieve influential personages from their offices; it won him few friends, made him some enemies, and diluted the loyalty of the traditional aristocracy, which was the principal link between the monarchy and the tribes. The web of political loyalties between ruler and ruled became further frayed, especially in the tribal and rural areas, as evidenced by sporadic restlessness, increased brigandage, a whispering campaign encouraged largely by the mullahs, and public grumbling against official corruption. Once his reform attempts were fully initiated, Amanullah was out of power and in exile within 6 months.
For the present regime, it will be no-less a delicate issue. Anti-corruption reform faces the same risks and is directly linked to the tenuous “stability” Afghanistan has developed over the past eight years since the fall of the Taliban. Karzai’s reluctance to reform is a result of both his own personal culpability and his realization that his weak government has been built on accommodations with various regional and local warlords and power players, who have in turn built their own patronage and influence networks. In these conditions, the concept of “civil service” has been reduced to the pursuit of personal, familial, clan and other local interests. Supported by international donors, supplemented by a burgeoning black-market economy, and arbitrary tax and customs revenues, these regional players are strong enough to be able to destabilize whatever peace and administrative/governance presence the central state may have in the area. Since the existing structures were constructed upon these individuals and their clients, the majority of Afghan governmental institutions would have to undergo an immediate, significant reform or a thorough purge of existing officials. Both scenarios seem unlikely and unrealistic.
Karzai’s spokesmen have recently announced a conference on corruption in the near future. The objective of the conference will be to discuss and decide on a more detailed plan of action to deal with corrupt officials and endemic practices, as well as to lay out the more general plan for the next five years. It remains to be seen what can actually be done to change the current state affairs, and it is unlikely anyone really has an effective solution. Real improvement will not only require genuine will on the part of Karzai’s regime to curb these inimical practices but also demands from the international community and an acknowledgement and appreciation of corruption in the Afghan context. Aside from increasing oversight on the expenditure of government funds, there seems little else the international community can do to help. Little evidence points to Karzai’s regime being able to overcome these historical pitfalls and legacy of dysfunctional political culture anytime soon. However, without a significant overhaul in public perceptions of government legitimacy and effectiveness in the very near future, it is unlikely Karzai’s government will remain viable for the full five yeas of his second term. With these historical storm clouds looming over his shoulder, Karzai undoubtedly remembers how few Afghan leaders have left office alive.
A graduate of Adelphi University in New York and Sussex University in England, Mr. Cohn also received his Master’s degree from The Institute of World Politics, and is about to complete a post-graduate certificate in Political Psychology from George Washington University in Washington, DC.
He is currently working as a researcher and analyst for Glevum Associates, deployed in Afghanistan.
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