Conference organizers seek action on Afghan corruption

International partners lose patience on issue

UNCONVINCED Although President Hamid Karzai agrees corruption is a problem, he has chafed at suggestions it is a problem big enough to undermine the state. UNCONVINCED
Although President Hamid Karzai agrees corruption is a problem, he has chafed at suggestions it is a problem big enough to undermine the state.
By Heidi Vogt
Associated Press / December 15, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai convenes a three-day conference on corruption today, a gathering that organizers hope will at least produce public acknowledgment that Afghanistan’s government runs on bribery, graft, and favoritism that fuels the Taliban insurgency.

Under mounting international pressure to clean up his government, Karzai called the conference as his first official act after he was sworn in last month to a second term following a fraud-marred election that threatened to undermine international support for the war in Afghanistan.

The international community has expressed skepticism that this week’s conference will be much more than talk. Instead, international officials are waiting to see whether reformers are appointed to the Cabinet and major figures prosecuted before concluding that the government is serious about curbing corruption.

“We think the conference is certainly a step in the right direction, in that it’s important to see the government of Afghanistan addressing corruption issues,’’ US Embassy spokesman John Groch said. “At the same time, however, we’re eager to see the government move forward with action.’’

International tolerance for corruption is running thin as the United States and its international partners prepare to send thousands more soldiers to confront the growing Taliban insurgency. Last month, Afghanistan slipped three places in Transparency International’s annual index of corruption perceptions, becoming the world’s second most corrupt country, ahead of Somalia.

Pervasive ballot-box stuffing in the August vote delayed results for months and laid bare to the world a government dominated by cronyism and favor-trading. That prompted a debate in the United States and other nations over whether to send more troops to prop up the Karzai government.

Afghans regularly complain that they have to grease palms to get anything done in a country where the government barely operates outside large cities. Police and district officials routinely supplement low wages by exacting fees for services. Getting official documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or passports usually requires small payments to clerks to receive the application and to other government workers to process papers. In rural areas, local warlords often have more say on who can hold farmland than any ownership document.

NATO officials believe that such practices undermine support for the national government and encourage rural Afghans to support the Taliban.

Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy head of the government office responsible for fighting corruption, said he hopes the conference will be a first step to ending the government’s state of denial about graft.

“There must be some strong recommendation, actually an admission, a national confession that corruption is receiving social and political support in Afghanistan,’’ Ahmadi said.

Karzai has said that fraud in the August election was not as widespread as international observers suggested. Although Karzai has acknowledged corruption is a problem, he has often chafed at suggestions that it is a problem big enough to undermine the state. He has repeatedly said that international donors should focus on cleaning up corruption among their own contractors in Afghanistan.

Organizers of the conference, which ends Thursday, expect concrete recommendations, Ahmadi said. Karzai is expected to endorse the suggestions, but it is unclear whether he will follow up on them.

“All this is nice if it creates more awareness, if it changes the mindset, if it gives indications that we’re going into a new era,’’ Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the head of the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime for Afghanistan, said of the conference. “But we need to have concrete cases soon.’’

He said the only way to convince Afghans that back-room dealings will no longer be tolerated is to arrest high-profile figures.

Last week, the mayor of Kabul was convicted of misuse of authority in connection with corruption in city contracts and sentenced to four years in prison. He is free pending appeal. At least 15 more senior officials are awaiting trial by a special court the government is working to establish to hear corruption cases, Ahmadi said. He said the conference could bolster the authority of the anticorruption office so that it can initiate prosecutions on its own, or at least pressure the attorney general’s office to follow through.

But Lemahieu said that regular courts can try the senior officials and that a special court is unnecessary under Afghan law.

Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, the editor of a major Kabul newspaper, said many Afghans are impatient for real action. “Any step toward fighting corruption is important at this critical point,’’ he said.

But he fears that the conference will be dominated by grandstanding officials.

“It would be better if instead of all these opening remarks by officials, they would just go to work,’’ he said. “We have heard it all over the past eight years.’’