Victory at Any Cost?

Despite ‘Overwhelming’ Corruption in Afghanistan, Canada Fights On

The true scale of Afghanistan’s corruption only became obvious in December when cables released by WikiLeaks depicted a state rotten to its very core, festering with bribery, extortion and embezzlement at every level of government.

Described in the interchangeable terms of overwhelming and monumental, the staggering scale of the corruption had opposition leaders in the House of Commons wondering aloud why Canada was supporting such a tainted government.

Despite the rhetoric, one expert believes that the corruption might not be such a bad thing.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” said Julian Schofield, a Concordia Political Science professor and expert on Afghanistan. “Half the things we call corrupt are things we don’t like, which is why we call them corrupt.”

Among the practices that have been criticized by western authorities as corrupt is hawala, a system of informal money transfers that occurs without government supervision. With hawala, money is transferred through verbal agreements and goods, not through currency exchanges like those found in western systems.

Afghanistan’s mortgage industry, based on handwritten letters and families lending money to individuals, has also been a target of criticism. As with hawala and much of Afghanistan’s corruption, it occurs outside of government regulation.

At the top of the complaint list is a rich system of kickbacks where provincial governors demand payments from their citizens for being in their power.
“Some of those things are out-and-out extortion and other times it is payment for services where the institutions don’t exist,” said Schofield. “We call it corruption, but it’s basically extra-institution behaviour.”

The reason for this corruption is two-fold. Partly it has to do with a flood of money into the country after NATO’s invasion in 2001; Kabul is now awash in billions of dollars of aid money and thousands of highly paid foreign experts, causing rents and prices to skyrocket. This was accompanied by a complete failure of institution building, where the local government was left to build its own legitimacy and bureaucracy.

“We should either do it our way or not at all,” said Schofield. “If we set up institutions and we don’t police them, we will have massive corruption where people put money in Swiss bank accounts. If we enforce it, we will need to knock heads.

“That will involve making tough decisions about the drug trade and the structure of the family. But so far we haven’t been willing to do those things, because that would mean we would be fighting the Afghan people. We [are] fighting the Taliban, and we don’t really want to fight the Taliban, we want to fight al Qaeda.”

Compared to previous conflicts like Korea, where western powers adopted a colonial approach and dominated the construction of new institutions, Afghanistan saw little of the same attention—a problem made worse by the realities of a country that’s been at war for nearly a century.

When asked about western institution building, Schofield was quick to respond.

“We haven’t done anything,” he laughed. “We gave them money for projects that were not built because our forces couldn’t establish security. There isn’t much institution building going on in Afghanistan.”

Canada’s top diplomat in Afghanistan was quoted in a leaked memo warning that the corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s government “makes my blood boil.” Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon downplayed the comment, which caused diplomatic waves.

“Both the government of Afghanistan and the government of Canada agree that corruption is one of the major challenges facing Afghanistan. Our government raises concerns regarding issues of democracy, human rights, as well as the rule of law directly with the Afghan authorities and we expect our ambassadors to do exactly that,” Cannon said during a Question Period in early December.

The government has remained quiet on the issue of Afghan corruption, not willing to push an already unstable local government. American and other authorities have adopted a similar non-approach.

“We can’t wish away corruption; the only thing we can do is cut off aid or provide close supervision,” said Schofield, two options not currently being considered by the west.

“What’s happening in Afghanistan is normal; it’s always been like that. It’s an adaptive way to survive,” said Schofield. “To change it will take a massive reeducation of the population and a very strong state apparatus to punish corruption, which means a police state like Egypt, South Korea or Japan, where people are punished for breaking the law.”

With Canada and NATO tied up fighting a war in the South-West Asian country, the ongoing cost of bribery and extortion might seem acceptable compared to the price of ending it..

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.