The Corruption Factor

Ramazan Bashardost (right), a former Afghan planning minister and law professor, quit the cabinet of Afghan president Hamid Karzai citing widespread corruption and is running for president in the Aug. 20 election. Beside him is Scott Taylor, publisher of Canadian defense magazine Esprit de Corps. Photo by Sasha Uzunov.

Canada is quiet amid growing reports of government corruption in Afghanistan, which votes Thursday
Alex Roslin
Saturday, August 15, 2009
The Montreal Gazette

The man they call the Ralph Nader of Afghanistan couldn’t have a more humble office or home. Ramazan Bashardost, a popular Kabul MP, is running his campaign for the Afghan presidency out of a small tent where he lives opposite the country’s parliament.
While many other candidates travel in convoys with squads of bodyguards and are said to be systematically bribing voters, Bashardost has a modest election budget of $20,000 and only a smattering of campaign posters up around Kabul.
Yet a poll released yesterday ahead of Afghanistan’s election, which takes place Thursday, puts Bashardost in third place with 10 per cent of the vote—a potential spoiler position and enough to possibly cost president Hamid Karzai, the front-runner, an outright majority and force a run-off poll. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister, is in second place—polling at 26 per cent to Karzai’s 44 per cent.
Bashardost—a former Afghan planning minister who quit Karzai’s cabinet citing widespread corruption—condemns the Karzai regime as hopelessly sleazy. During a phone interview this week, he said he has a special message for Canadians: “It’s time for Canadian taxpayers to say, ‘Enough. We won’t give our tax dollars to people who steal money.’”
Bashardost’s message is increasingly resonating with Afghans and Western officials irked at Karzai’s inclusion of several prominent warlords and drug traffickers in his re-election campaign.
The U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has distanced itself from Karzai in recent months. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Afghanistan a “narco state” during her confirmation hearing in January.
Obama rebuffed the Afghan leader’s request for a bilateral visit this spring, and put an end to the friendly bi-weekly videoconference chats Karzai had enjoyed with president George W. Bush, the Washington Post reported in May.
“Karzai is not our man in this upcoming election,” said a U.S. official quoted in the story.
In contrast, Canadian officials have refused to take Karzai to task publicly about corruption. Asked in June about Karzai’s choice of a well-known warlord as a vice-presidential candidate, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who chairs the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, said there is a “reluctance” to say “anything about a particular candidate.”
“There are times when we will look at certain candidates who are running and we will say, if I was involved in that election, if I was running against that candidate, I’d be making his or her past history very clear,” Day told a House of Commons committee.
“But we have made a commitment that we’re not going to interject ourselves into the election process.”
These concerns centre around corruption related to Afghanistan’s flourishing opium trade, which now feeds 90 percent of the world’s supply and was worth an estimated $3.4 billion last year, or a third of the country’s gross domestic product, according to UN figures.
About $70 million U.S. of that revenue flows to the Taliban insurgency, mostly through taxation of opium farmers and shipments, according to CIA and U.S. Defense Department estimates.
U.S. military officials recently responded to this flow of revenue by placing 50 Afghans suspected of being traffickers who fund the Taliban on a target list to be captured or killed, according to a New York Times report this week.
But the bulk of the opium revenues go not to the Taliban, but to Afghan warlords and corrupt political figures who are allied with the West, says Jorrit Kamminga, director of policy research at the London-based International Council on Security and Development, a think tank that focuses on Afghanistan.
“Opium is a third of the Afghan economy. It means everybody is involved either directly or indirectly. It’s really everywhere. You could argue it’s a narco-state,” he said.
When the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, their ban on opium growing went with them. One of the most conspicuous manifestations of opium’s prominent role is the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur, the country’s wealthiest enclave. An empty hillside as recently as 2001, Sherpur now boasts extravagant mansions that Afghans have dubbed “poppy palaces” and “narcotecture.”
Some of the most candid public criticism of Karzai has come from the former U.S. ambassador for counternarcotics in Afghanistan, Thomas Schweich. In an article in The New York Times Magazine last year, Schweich said he initially believed Karzai’s strong anti-drug statements when he arrived in Kabul in 2006, but that soon changed.
“Over the next two years I would discover how deeply the Afghan government was involved in protecting the opium trade,” he wrote. “Karzai was playing us like a fiddle: The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems.”

Thomas Ruttig, a former UN diplomat now working as co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Western nations are also to blame for the drug-fuelled corruption.
“The West has to be partly blamed. Many of our Afghan allies are involved in the drug trade. We are effectively turning a blind eye,” he said in an interview from his Kabul office.
The corruption is now so rife, he said, it is pushing angry Afghans to support the Taliban.
“One of the major reasons people turn away from the government is what I would call bad governance, including corruption. It has created a lot of disillusionment,” he said.
The anger is also being turned against Canadian soldiers, who are increasingly seen as “bullyboys of a corrupt regime,” said Scott Taylor, publisher of Ottawa-based defense magazine Esprit de Corps.
Taylor has reported extensively from Afghanistan and interviewed some of its most infamous warlords.
“We are turning a willful blind eye (to the corruption). We have de facto become what the Soviets were—trying to prop up a hated regime,” he said.
Speaking by phone from his tent in Kabul, Bashardost agreed. “The Afghan state is in the process of destroying itself—without a need for the Taliban to use any force.
“When people go before a judge, they are asked for bribes. People say it is better to resolve their problems through (judicial councils organized by) the Taliban or tribal leaders.”
A case in point, he said, is Kandahar, the province that is home to Canada’s 2,800-troop mission. Kandahar, a major Taliban bastion, has seen opium cultivation shoot up fourfold since 2003, while corruption has also become widespread.
A sign of how bad things are came in 2008 when UN inspectors headed out to audit the Afghan government’s opium-eradication efforts in Kandahar. They found 72 percent of the crops that were supposed to have been destroyed were actually still standing.
It was one of the lowest rates of any province in the country, according to a 2008 UN report. Local officials often take bribes from farmers in order not to destroy crops.
Ruttig and Kamminga both advocate a radical solution they say would undermine the opium traffickers and warlords and eliminate much of the corruption—buying the opium crop directly from farmers and destroying it. Alternatively, Kamminga says, the opium could also be sold to drug companies to turn into medicine such as morphone.

Today, Kandahar’s highest-profile politician is Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali, who is the head of the provincial council and is widely suspected of links to drug trafficking.
A 2006 Newsweek investigation reported that well-placed sources said Karzai’s brother was a “major figure” in the opium trade; one Afghan Interior Ministry official said he “leads the whole trafficking structure” in the country’s south.
There were numerous diplomatic reports that (Karzai’s) brother Ahmed Wali, who was running half of Kandahar, was involved in the drug trade,” Schweich wrote in his piece last year.
U.S. officials have directly challenged Karzai about evidence of his brother’s drug ties in several meetings since 2006, according to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times. The Afghan president reportedly dismissed the allegations, citing lack of proof. (Karzai’s brother also denies the claims; he has never been charged with drug involvement.)
Canada’s Defense Department didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said none of the three department officials authorized to grant media interviews on the Afghan election was available to comment.
Taylor said the allegations about Ahmed Wali are widely known among Canadian officials, but they are loath to rock the boat. “If we are going to start stirring things up with Ahmed Wali Karzai, we are going to have trouble with Hamid Karzai,” he said.
“Our primary mission is to stay alive, so we basically want to anger as few people as possible.”
But that policy is backfiring, said Bashardost, because it fuels the Taliban insurgents who are killing Canadian soldiers.
“I’m sorry to say Western powers are wasting their money and (soldiers’) lives in Afghanistan,” he said.
Bashardost, a French-educated former law professor, shot to prominence as planning minister in 2005 when he produced a report that said 80 per cent of the 2,400 non-governmental organizations involved in foreign-aid projects in Afghanistan were corrupt.
He recommended the expulsion of all the corrupt NGOs, but lost Karzai’s support and ended up resigning. He then set up his tent outside parliament and ran for office, winning the third-highest number of votes out of 400 parliamentary candidates.
Bashardost says Canada can take some simple steps to help Afghanistan: Cut ties with corrupt Afghan officials and investigate how hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian development aid to Afghanistan are being spent.
“The Canadian government must absolutely demand that it won’t spend one dollar or give one (soldier’s) life if the Afghan government is full of warlords, corrupt people, drug traffickers and war criminals,” he said.
“Your soldiers and money are very useful—on condition that the regime is clean, which is not the case right now.”