KHAN NESHIN AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — What corruption?
That was the response when I asked Kabul Mayor Mir Abdul Ahad Sahebi last month about corruption in the capital of Afghanistan.
Yesterday, the white-haired mayor who lived as a student in Washington, became the first major official in Afghanistan to be convicted for corruption since President Hamid Karzai pledged to crack down on crooked government employees.
When I sat down with him in mid-November, he had a novel take on the corruption that’s widely perceived as endemic. “I am searching around to find one person [working for the city] who is taking a bribe, but I don’t see it,” he said then. “This latest propaganda about corruption, I personally believe not 2 percent of it is actual facts or figures.”
Sahebi argued that city amenities cost money and sometimes fees for services get misunderstood as corruption. He also said that international contracts for development here are the worst offenders.
Anything, for a price
When asking around Kabul about corruption, I found that everyone had a story of being shaken-down. I was even asked in a low voice if I wanted to cut the airport lines for a fee as I left the country.
Most officials I’ve spoken to acknowledge that corruption is a problem – while always insisting their own hands were clean. Sahebi just took it a bit further, claiming that stories of corruption in the capital were mostly hype.
When it comes to reporting on corruption, there are no unimpeachable sources to interview. Even the man leading the anticorruption fight for Mr. Karzai has high-level people questioning his credibility. Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition figure, said that while Mohammad Yusin Osmani is a good man, he had been forced to drop cases against some well-connected officials. I asked Mr. Osmani about this, and he said the day he was forced to drop a case under pressure would be the day he left his job.
The international community, which is pressing for a corruption crackdown, hopes that more high-level prosecutions will chip away at the feelings of impunity among officials and dissipate the culture of distrust among the people.
There’s also hope that Karzai’s new cabinet, to be announced this weekend, will give the government a way to make a clean break with ministers who are viewed as corrupt or ineffective.
High consultancy fees: Corruption by another name?
Of course, the international community will also need to clean up its act. Sahebi spent considerable time telling me about overly expensive consultants with whom donor nations forced him to work.
Their vastly inflated fees, he claimed, amounted to corruption.
He said he yearned for the days 30, 40 years ago when the US would send young engineers to help Afghanistan without paying them large salaries that cut deeply into the foreign aid budgeted for his country.