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.


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.

“This is not a man with good options”

Wrote a friend of mine when he sent me an article about the pressure Afghan president Hamid Karzai is under to sign off on the execution orders for dozens of Afghans sentenced to death for capital crimes.

The basic points of the article:

  • More than one hundred Afghans sit on death row.
  • Most have been convicted of crimes such as rape, murder, and kidnapping.
  • The judicial system is a complete mess, and trials that even come close to resembling fairness are a rarity.
  • Afghan civilians, especially women’s advocates, want the executions to take place, so they might deter future violent crimes, especially rape.
  • Afghans want the executions to be public, Karzai wants them to be private.
  • The international community opposes the use of the death penalty, especially in Afghanistan, where one can safely say that innocent people will be executed if executions are carried out at all.
  • Donors have threatened to withhold aid if these pending executions go ahead.
  • Karzai faces a tough bid for re-election next year.

So, what should Karzai to do?  What should international community to do?

Karzai should halt all executions. The use of the death penalty is a violation of the non-derogable right to life and bodily integrity.  It’s wrong ethically, and, furthermore, it won’t deter the kinds of crimes that have ordinary Afghans living in fear anyway.  Only an effective police force and army, and a fair, professional judiciary can do that.  To placate a fearful populace with hangings would be to excuse the failure of the state to provide basic security.  Public hangings may temporarily satisfy an understandable desire to see “justice” served in a country where injustice and lawlessness prevail in all areas of life, but they won’t bring the safety or stability Afghans desperately need.

If he doesn’t sign off on the execution orders, Karzai will come under even more pressure politically (I wonder, do Afghans have a phrase similar to “soft on crime”?), and his chances of re-election may well be badly hurt.  I’d say, so be it.  If he cares about his country’s long-term future, he’ll do what’s right, even if it threatens his job. It is a rare politician in any regime that chooses this path, however.

As for the international community and the donors threatening to withhold aid, I think their dilemma is even more difficult. If the threat of withholding aid is not made, Karzai will have less incentive to indefinitely postpone the executions, and if they’re carried out, the international community fails in its role as a defender of human rights. Individual country donors, especially the taxpayer-funded development agencies, also have to answer to publics back home –in places like Norway, and Canada.  That said, Afghans need life-saving and life-sustaining aid, especially as another long and hungry winter closes in.  Sleepless nights are being had in Kabul over this, of that I’m sure.

The pessimist in me suspects Karzai will just go ahead with the executions, bleeding-heart foreigners and international law be damned.  If Karzai doesn’t sign off on the executions, he will probably blame the internationals for “interfering” in Afghan justice and play up his role as the patriotic president doing his best with one hand tied by the UN and the other by the legions of NGOs.  If this happens, the internationals should be grateful and play along.  Rarely do cynical political games offer the most humane potential solution to any policy dilemma, but this may be one of those rare occasions.

EDIT I: I should add that Karzai doesn’t seem to have a problem with pardoning very nasty criminals when pardons are politically expedient.

EDIT II: A little background, from the Independent (UK):

Under Afghan law, the cases will be sent to the President, Hamid Karzai, who can either sign the execution orders or grant a pardon.

He had earlier agreed to stop executing prisoners until the courts were reformed.

But all that changed in October 2007, when 15 prisoners were dragged from their cells, without warning, and gunned down on an army firing range. The families of the dead claimed they had been beaten before they were shot in the face and chest. Neither the families nor the prisoners were warned of their fate. Elaine Pearson, from Human Rights Watch, said: “President Karzai should suspend the death penalty immediately. More mass executions will be a huge setback for the rule of law in Afghanistan.”