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December 3, 2009
The view from Afghanistan: corruption, illiteracy and loss

Merchants at fabric shop in Afghanistan. Photo: Khushbu Shah

Worldfocus contributing blogger Khushbu Shah lives in Kabul and conducts research for a consulting firm. She writes here about the pervasiveness of corruption in the war-torn nation.

While waiting for my driver outside my friend’s house in Kabul the other night, I had a short but intense conversation with a friend who works in the security sector.

I recounted  a recent trip to twelve different Afghan provinces to monitor survey on a corruption, or rather, as we have tactfully summarized the topic, “public and private services.” Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming response from the urban population was to write corruption off as a social norm, a permanent cultural fixture. One police officer’s response to our corruption query was, “If my commander asks me to go pick up the bribes he has been offered, what do you think I am going to do?”

My experienced friend scoffed at my naïveté and proceeded to tell me about the reality on the ground. As a security officer, he has had to acquire weapons over the course of the past few months, but the procedure is not as simple as going into a shop and registering a weapon. Apparently, weapons come through the black market via the Taliban and must be registered to the government. When asked if the government knows where most of these weapons come from, he said, “What? You think there is a Wal-Mart in Afghanistan where people go to buy guns?”

He then offered more disturbing examples. Even the bases that security companies construct in certain provinces are built with the approval of contractors who have ties to the Taliban.

Just a few months prior to my arrival, the only flight in from Dubai was with a ticket through Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national carrier, even if one had booked with another company. The CEO of Ariana Airlines has strong ties to the Taliban, and essentially, purchasing a plane ticket with Ariana was the only way to receive a visa for Afghanistan.

What I really find disturbing is that the insurgents battling with the international coalition are deeply enmeshed in the corruption. They have ties to reconstruction efforts.  And the same insurgents also sell weapons to individuals and companies.

My last question to my friend — as my driver stood outside in the pouring rain — was one that might be better left unasked: then what are we doing here?

Worldfocus contributing blogger “K” — who was with a U.S. Marine Embedded Training Team in Kunar Province between November 2008 and August 2009 — posted an entry this week about his experiences with Afghan villagers who had suffered at the hands of the Taliban. Here’s an excerpt:

The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened. The mission was to visit a particular village, known for having a huge white house. The village was not far up the valley from our base. In fact, we could see the white house from the base, though it would take a good 30 minutes to walk over there.

Afghan women wait outside a market. Photo: Khushbu Shah

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (two Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA) before looking around for the village elder to talk to.

We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying.

Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own.

Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

Writer P.J. Tobia at True/Slant, who lives in Kabul, reacted with extreme skepticism to President Obama’s speech. Tobia helped edit a report filed last month about young, illiterate teens who join Afghan security forces – an account that Afghan officials deny.

After listening to the President’s speech, I’m still not sure what he thinks Afghanistan will look like by the time US forces withdraw in 2011.

Most of those security forces he wants to increase and train are illiterate and undisciplined. Afghan military and police leadership is corrupt, some of them having bought their ranks in order to get in on lucrative bribes from narco-traffickers.

The US and NATO have had eight years to train these men, what could possibly be done in 18 months to seriously professionalize them? Magic?

When the US withdraws from Afghanistan it will leave behind 400,000 well armed men with no education, lousy paychecks (that they sometimes don’t receive), suspect leadership and very few options. This is not a recipe for stability.




The writer laments where to find the men. How about all those men he was talking to. With weapons, a minimal payroll cost we could arm the entire village and probably tens of them for the cost of one American soldier. Training doesn’t require literacy, our revolutionary war soldiers were largely illiterate, the Taliban are illiterate. To fight requires a reason, these relatives have a reason a better reason than American soldiers most of whom are there for the money.


I find it hard to know how to respond to a writer who knows nothing of American history and Tammy Hall. Bribery was a fixture in American life until the twentieth century. Kennedy won because the Chicago bosses voted the dead. It is a fixture in most of the world. We need to divorce our fight for security from a futile attempt to change this culture. The Afghan army does the dying and fighting already, lets build it up with direct payments to the men, direct turnover of weapons. When it gets to 400,000 and is carrying the fight turn over the keys to the King and leave. Let Afghans figure out how to govern themselves we don’t need Karzai who is just a local thug.


Scott, you make some very important points about corruption in Afghanistan.

While the framework of cultural relativism certainly helps to make sense of the situation there, we also need to maintain certain ethical guidelines for our Afghan partners.


In order to address coruption in Afghanistan, we must first understand how the concept is viewed in Afghan culture. To dismiss this approach is commit an egregious error in judgment and will only keep us trapped in a ethnocentric circle of accusation and misunderstanding as we accuse them of corruption and then they look at our own culture and point out the numerous examples within it. Now, let me be clear here, I am not advocating a case of ethical relativism, but I am advocating an approach that appreciates the relativism of cultures. What is the difference? The first would sanction any and all behavior as acceptable ethically because it exists in their culture. Cultural relativism starts with the proposition that different cultures adhere to different rules of conduct, but in this particular case would seek to understand what constitutes “corruption” in their culture and then seek to reduce it. This space is too short to respond in length, but there we must start to work toward understanding these concepts as they exist in their culture. While Afghani’s agree that corruption exists, that may be because we have ascribed the word to a concept that may not fit the concept of corruption in Afghani culture, particularly the negative connotation of the word as we understand it. I have not traveled to Afghanistan, but I do know that in many parts of the world, what we call corruption is seen more as “obligation” based on familial ties, which makes complete sense in Afghanistan. Again, the space is too short to elaborate, but please consider this approach. The blog author is experiencing what we call in anthropological parlance, epistemological vertigo. Regardless of experience on the ground, we all experience it at some point, particularly as it relates to moral/ethical issues.


Corruption is simply a manifestation of the “get-rich-quick” mindset. Haven’t we seen it elsewhere? What steps have been taken to curb it there?


Wow!…and yet no one listens to the foesakened silent majority. The big (know-it-all)wigs talk to the gold ladened houses of ill-repute having never muddied their hands with the poor. I guess if you can speak english your word is gospel. Thankyou for your candid reporting,and please stay safe. Bravo!

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