Corruption in Afghanistan

In her latest for Forbes, Ann Marlowe demonstrates how not to write about Afghanistan and Afghans, or, really, any country and its people.

Brace yourself.

The first sentence of the article is, “Afghanistan is a ghetto.” Marlowe argues this in the most appalling, condescending terms imaginable, stopping just shy of using the term “savages” to describe Afghans. She paints all Afghans with the same broad, disapproving brush. It’s stunning, really. So, without further delay, some of the most gobsmackingly offensive excerpts:

By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities.

They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups.

There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture.

Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives.

Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence.

Very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion.

Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.

While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare.

Let’s see if I can summarize Marlowe: Afghans are impatient, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized, feckless, insular, clannish, distrustful, willfully ignorant, ill-suited to literary culture (Hamesha must have been dropped on his head as a baby, I guess), seemingly incapable of critical reasoning and independent thought (I guess Nasim Fekrat isn’t Afghan, that imposter!), fundamentalist in religious beliefs and practice, immoral, unethical (strange, then, that my boyfriend feels guilty about a  math quiz he cheated on ten years ago), cowardly, and warlike.

Whew!

I’m not a cultural relativist. If a cultural practice or tradition infringes on fundamental human rights, restricts the development of the individual, or serves to perpetuate inequality (racial, gender, class, caste or otherwise) or injustice of any kind, I believe it should be changed or abandoned altogether. There are bad cultural practices, and bad traditions. However, to argue that there are bad cultures takes us down a dangerous path. Culture is, and has been for a long time, synonymous with nations, groups of people –rather than mutable pattens of behaviour and symbolic structures (which is roughly the actual definition.) If a culture is bad, it’s bad in its entirety (and not just a part, like political culture), and “bad” labels whole populations, individuals cease to exist.

Afghans are not all the things Marlowe claims they are. Certainly some Afghans are some of those things. Some Afghans are even all of those things. But there are many Afghans to whom NONE of those labels apply.

Dexter Filkins gets that. For a recent IHT article on corruption, Filkins and Afghan collaborators Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi interviewed everyone from former government ministers to truck drivers to better understand the range of (only male?) opinion on the matter. Filkins, Wafa and Rahimi make the important points that; 1) most Afghans disdain corruption (shocking!), 2) understand who is responsible, and 3) don’t sit by passively or approvingly when they can do something to fight it.

The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency – committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so – but also from itself.

“This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over,” said Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. “The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated.”

On the streets here, tales of corruption are as easy to find as kebab stands. Everything seems to be for sale: public offices, access to government services, even a person’s freedom. The examples above – $25,000 to settle a lawsuit, $6,000 to bribe the police, $100,000 to secure a job as a provincial police chief – were offered by people who experienced them directly or witnessed the transaction.

[…] Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption. But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a German organization that gauges honesty in government, ranked Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries in 2005. This year, it fell to 176th.

“Every man in the government is his own king,” said Abdul Ghafar, a truck driver. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several in a single day.

[…] Many Afghans, including Ghani, the former finance minister, place responsibility for the collapse of the state on Karzai, who, they say, has failed repeatedly to confront the powerful figures who are behind much of the corruption. In his stint as finance minister, Ghani said, two moments crystallized his disgust and finally prompted him to quit.

The first, Ghani said, was his attempt to impose order on Kabul’s chaotic system of private property rights. The Afghan government had accumulated vast amounts of land during the period of communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

And since 2001, the government has given much of it away – often, Ghani said, to shady developers at extremely low prices.

The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans like Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.

“I won’t do it,” Farani said outside the courthouse. “It’s a matter of principle. Never.”

“But,” he said, “I don’t have my house, either, and I don’t know that I ever will.”

And that’s how it’s done.

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