- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

KHOST CITY, Afghanistan | Dr. Amir Badshah dragged his hands through his white beard with anger.

“Look at this hospital,” said the tall ethnic Pashtun, who directs health services in Khost province. Clutching a contract as he inspected construction in Khost’s new downtown medical center, he kicked the bottom of the hospital’s cement frame only to watch it crumble beneath his shoe.

“Eight-and-half-million dollars to build a clinic and look at how it is being constructed,” he said. “They think I’m too ignorant to know that they have violated the contract. They are wrong. They promised a hospital that would last more than 120 years, and this won’t even last 20.”

Construction of the hospital - along with the rest of the Khost’s downtown government buildings - was in its fourth month in June.

A Provincial Reconstruction Team, headed by U.S. civilian and military personnel, arrived as part of a normal review process to ensure “that all was going as planned,” said Navy Cmdr. Erika L. Sauer.

Cmdr. Sauer, charged with overseeing the project, was surprised when the director approached her with his contract and his complaints. In frustration she said, “If you don’t like it, you can use it for a storage facility.”

“Cheap cement, this is not what the contract states, but look, the governor’s building is built with the best red brick,” Dr. Badshah said. “This is corruption. Where did the rest of the money go? Into the pockets of the contractors.”

The Saifullah Khadem Construction Co., the local company charged with the project, did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Cmdr. Sauer said she understood the doctor’s concerns, but touted the success of the project, saying, “Now the people of Khost have more than they did in the past.”

She emphasized that the building in the capital of the eastern Afghan province of the same name was built to code and the projects employed Afghan people to reinvigorate the community.

Dr. Badshah isn’t the only one questioning what has happened to billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign aid since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001. Nearly a dozen other Afghan and foreign officials interviewed recently by The Washington Times said that lack of accountability and persistent reports of corruption have contributed to rising discontent with the Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai and a resurgence of the Taliban.

The drug trade

The enormous profits amassed by opium and heroin traders have allowed corruption to seep into almost every area of the Afghan government, said Thomas Schweich, a former State Department coordinator for counternarcotics in Afghanistan who is now an ambassador for counternarcotics with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I wanted to believe Karzai for a long time,” said Mr. Schweich, referring to the president’s repeated promises to squelch the drug trade and corruption. “But unfortunately, nothing has changed; if anything, it’s worse.”

“The international community is not listening to the people, and if this doesn’t change, they will fail to free Afghanistan,” said Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, a member of the country’s former royal family and president of the National Coalition for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan, who spoke to The Times in Kabul in July.

Prince Seraj said U.S. and foreign donors have failed to reach the “the hearts and minds of the Afghan people” and are slowly losing the war.

“We must allow the people to vote those in office who best represent them, not puppet leaders,” he said. “And if this young democracy is going to be saved, we must all work together as a team between the people, the coalition and the government. Failure for Afghanistan is not an option.”

Navy Cmdr. Bob Mehal, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the Defense Department implements programs “designed to strengthen the Afghan government” with the intention of training Afghan forces to take the helm of the counternarcotics effort.

“The political will of the Afghan government to address poppy cultivation is the primary variable affecting the success of our efforts,” he said. “If the Afghan government is unwilling or unable to address the problem, no amount of U.S. action will alleviate the present situation.”

In an April visit to The Times, Afghan Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili acknowledged that corruption is a major problem, but said Afghans were not the only culprits.

“Administrative corruption is one of the biggest challenges after poverty,” he said. “Corruption is not limited to the Afghan administration - also the international institutions, [nongovernmental organizations], have been corrupted.”

Over the past four years, Mr. Karzai has slowly seen his support dwindle among former allies in his own government, in large part because of corruption charges.

Too many payoffs

“Everybody has a price,” said Saleh Mohammad Registani, who represents the northern province of Panjshir in the Afghan parliament. “They buy their post. Once you buy a post … then you have to collect your money back from the people. Many become involved in the drug trade, extortion or other criminal enterprises.”

“Where does the money go?” he continued. “Ask the top government officials with the exaggerated salaries, the prime contractors, subcontractors on the projects and every other person dipping their hands into the pot.”

Mr. Mohammad Registani is a member of the National Front party, which once supported Mr. Karzai and is now in opposition.

“The money that comes to Afghanistan is like transit money,” said the parliamentary representative, who was the youngest commander under the now-deceased Ahmed Shah Masood, whose leadership and guerrilla warfare helped defeat the Soviets.

“It came to Afghanistan, and maybe 60, 65 to 70 percent of it goes back to the countries that actually donated it and into the pockets of corrupt Afghan politicians. The people know what’s going on, but when you ask the authorities, they will tell you lies.”

In 2007, Afghanistan was ranked as the ninth worst nation out of 180 countries tracked by Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to expose corruption globally.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has received tens of billions of dollars in international aid, including more than $8 billion from the United States.

About $1.08 billion has come since 2004 under the Defense Department’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program. This year alone, the Defense Department has given more than $480 million.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, has provided nearly $7 billion since 2002, for reconstruction, roads, security, health and numerous other projects.

However, the people whom the international community is trying to win over with this assistance have seen a decline in economic progress and security in the past four years - a major reason that many are turning to militants who offer security in exchange for harsh Islamist rule.

“Currently, we have a Karzai policy, not an Afghan policy,” said Ajmal Ghani, chairman of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, based in Washington. “People don´t understand the difference between government and administration. For corruption to be eliminated in Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai needs to clean his own government from top to bottom.”

Justice for sale

At Mr.Mohammad Registani’s home office in Kabul, tensions were high. More than 15 female judges were meeting to plead for better working conditions and pay.

The women, who refused to have their pictures taken or their names disclosed for fear of retribution in a conservative Muslim society, aired their grievances.

“We don’t make enough money to survive,” one of the women said. “We make $60 a month, and now to change that, we need to wait four years for it to go through parliament?”

The educated women, dressed in conservative but modern attire compared with others in Kabul, were furious at the pay discrepancy between them and other government officials. Male Afghan judges also face low pay but make roughly $40 to $90 more per month than female judges, the women said.

The women also complained that junior ministry advisers make between $3,000 to $8,000 a month and more if they’re Afghan-Americans.

“The judicial system is falling apart,” another judge said.

“There can be no justice if people are forced into corruption,” said yet another.

When asked by The Times whether any of them accepted bribes for a decision, the women became quiet.

“We are not going to talk about that,” said the female judge who organized the meeting.

“If you have enough money, the judge will judge in your favor,” said Fazalyl, deputy editor of the Khost newspaper Wolas Hila, which means “Hopeful Nation,” and broadcasting director of the Khost news radio station. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name.

“Pay in Afghanistan is low, and the Taliban is getting stronger because the people don’t know where to turn,” said Abdul, a resident of Kabul and employee of a security firm that works closely with the government. He asked that only his first name be used because of the sensitivity of the topic.

“The U.S. and coalition should pay attention to this,” he said. “Even though the majority of people in the country are opposed to the Taliban insurgency, many villagers, in areas where the militants have gained strength, will turn to the Taliban to settle land disputes and other legal issues … because they don’t trust the judges,” he said.

“Even though they don’t necessarily support the Taliban, they turn away from the central government because they know in these issues the Taliban elders will be fair, and this is damaging the international effort.”

Buying loyalty

The judicial system is only one of many branches of the administration struggling with corruption. Low wages combine with drug money to tempt civil servants facing rising living expenses and an uncertain future.

Afghan narco-traffickers, who supply more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin and opium, buy the loyalty of hundreds of Afghan police, politicians, judges and military personnel, U.S. and Afghan officials told The Times.

Mr. Schweich said that while he headed the counternarcotics effort for the State Department, Afghan officials would privately complain to him that Mr. Karzai’s political future depended on the support he was getting from politicians and tribal leaders in the south, many of whom are connected to the opium trade.

A top Afghan official, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told The Times that “Karzai is worried about next year’s election, and any effort to eradicate the opium would cause him to lose support from those same people.”

Mr. Schweich said the Defense Department hasn’t done enough to provide protection for Afghan drug-eradication teams, who have lost more than 43 officers and have seen many more injured from insurgent attacks.

“It was not about the U.S. military eradicating poppy fields, but working with the Afghan National Army to provide specific in theater force protection,” Mr. Schweich said.

Cmdr. Mehal said that eradication is part of the Defense Department’s strategy in the war, but that the U.S. State Department is charged with heading the effort.

Pentagon officials are pressing the Afghan administration to investigate corruption charges against high-ranking members of Mr. Karzai’s government, he added.

“The political will of the Afghan government to address corruption at the highest levels of government remains a problem,” he said. “The U.S. government is working to press Afghan leadership to arrest and convict corrupt high-level government officials so that the public knows corruption will not be tolerated.”

Security vacuum

It was a solemn day for Dil, a middle-class businessman, in Kabul. He was burying his 31-year-old nephew, who had died of a heart attack.

Two men dressed in official Afghan police uniforms and carrying high-caliber weapons entered the mosque and attempted to kidnap another of Dil’s nephews during the service.

Dil’s family fought the gunmen off. The men in uniform escaped in a vehicle they stole from the family.

“We can’t live normal lives,” said Dil, who employs several bodyguards for his daughter and wife but worries daily that they will be kidnapped anyway. “We can’t even trust the police. If they weren’t police, how did they get the uniforms? This happens all the time.”

Kidnappings of wealthy Afghans have increased in recent years, from doctors and lawyers in the western city of Herat to professionals in Kabul and other parts of the country, a U.S. counterintelligence official said.

There is “no real accountability in the [Afghan] administration,” Mr. Mohammad Registani said. “It’s allowing corruption to destroy whatever hopes we had of creating a strong, Taliban-free nation.”

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