Traffic in Kabul converges at a major intersection adjacent to a sprawling market ringed by wedding halls. Here, a dozen Afghan traffic police in white uniforms stop seemingly random cars. Heated conversations ensue, documents are passed back and forth, then money changes hands and the cops wave the drivers through.
The driver’s violation? “They are always making up excuses,” Mohammad Zaman, a commercial minibus driver, says of the traffic police. He says that every day he and his fellow drivers pass through the intersection in order to pick up passengers on a nearby side road, they have to pay 400 Afghanis – around $9 in a country where the average worker makes just $2 a day.
The price of disobedience is steep, according to Zaman. “If we step on the road and we do not pay the money, they will take us to the station and we will have to pay double.”
This is business at usual in Afghanistan, a country firmly in what U.N. Special Representative Tom Koenigs called an “era of lawlessness and corruption.” Underpaid, poorly led policemen are the most visible perpetrators – and the major target of everyday Afghans’ frustrations. Never mind the international military occupation, frequent Taliban bombings and the growing problem of heroin addiction: crooked cops are urban Afghans’ number one complaint.
Corruption can double or triple the price of certain goods and services. Ghullam Ishan, another bus driver, estimates that he pays 50 Afghanis in bribes for every 80 he earns.
Barialay, a Kabul student who moonlights as a clerk at a car dealership, says that every time he helps a customer get his driver’s license renewed, he has to pay the traffic police bribes worth twice the license fee. Barialay, who like many Afghans goes by just one name, says the police once invented a “tinted window fee” that cost a customer $60.
Low pay plays a role in the cops’ corruption. Abdullah, an auxiliary policeman in Uruzgan province south of Kabul, says he earns just $70 per month and needs at least $20 more to feed his family.
“Corruption is a culture,” explains Dutch army Major Jaap, Abdullah’s instructor, who for security reasons declined to give his last name. “If you earn $70 per month and you’re standing at a checkpoint, you ask for money.”
Jaap adds that corruption isn’t just a police problem. Corruption extends “to the highest levels” of government, he says.
Around Kabul, completion of the main road connecting the international airport to downtown has been stalled by alleged misdirection of funds by corrupt senior officials. Major portions of the so-called Great Massoud Road have been widened and paved and now handle steady traffic.
But a mile-long stretch remains unpaved two years after a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking a project to improve this part of the road. Local businessmen, many of whom also live nearby, say that the dust kicked up by passing cars makes their children sick and chases away customers. Malik, a local shop owner who, said he blames government corruption that leeches away construction funds. Another resident of the area, Ahmad Zia, seconds that assessment, describing the multiple lavish Kabul homes built by many government ministers since the fall of the Taliban.
At least one academic is hoping to change the attitudes of Afghan civil servants, if not the underlying pay problems that encourage police corruption. Abdul Sattar Hayat, director of the Afghan Civil Service Institute, which trains bureaucrats, says that education can “reduce or eliminate” corruption by instilling a sense of professionalism in government officials.
Instructor Zabihullah Ziarmal teaches a leadership course at the institute that he says aims to inculcate a sense of duty in budding bureaucrats.
But the straight arrows in Afghan government are badly outnumbered. Abdul Jabar Sabat, Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor and an anti-corruption crusader, was reportedly attacked and beaten recently, allegedly by agents of an Afghan security firm he was investigating.
Sabat told the BBC on Tuesday that he had asked NATO forces in Afghanistan to help him disarm security firms he suspects of protecting corrupt officials. NATO declined, saying that was outside its mandate, according to the BBC.
Cross-posted at World Politics Review