Corruption: Can Afghanistan's Government Overcome Its National Shame?

 
 

Nineteen months have passed since the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) in Afghanistan, when Ashraf Ghani with his governing partner and erstwhile opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, took charge of the country. The NUG came to lead the government at a crucial time: the NATO combat mission came to an end and donors’ funding and assistance started drying out, compared to the golden decade of international aid and assistance that defined Hamid Karzai’s terms in office. 

By taking office, both Ghani and Abdullah showed great determination and political will to fight rampant corruption by re-opening the Kabul Bank case, paying surprise visits to government offices, sacking incompetent and corrupt government officials, streamlining and abolishing parallel government structures, and establishing the National Procurement Board, chaired by Ghani himself. Likewise, the NUG initiated many other efforts to ensure integrity, transparency, and accountability.

With the pace they were moving at in cleaning up the mess inherited from the previous administration, not only were government officials agitated by the possibility of being held accountable for administrative messes, but donor agencies became alert to their untraceable and uncoordinated off-budget projects.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The pace and momentum with which the NUG tackled corruption during its honeymoon period didn’t last long. First, Ghani appointed the former ministers of finance and education as his senior advisers while both had records of suspected corruption scandals while serving in the Karzai administration. Second, Ghani and Abdullah got stuck in political disagreements over appointing the cabinet ministers based on the criteria they set. It took them more than six months  to agree on cabinet nominees, which ultimately diverted their focus from the “national interest” toward the interests of their political camps. They stood to gain more political leverage by appointing their political affiliates to the highest positions possible. This created a political vacuum and uncertainty where the government institutions were administered by acting officials.

Despite the delay, the public was expecting both leaders to remain committed in appointing the cabinet ministers based on merit, professionalism, and incorruptibility, but in reality, the selection was done against the agreed criteria (with the exception of a few nominees that could fit those requirements). One among the select group was a Fulbright alumnus, nominated for the Ministry of Agriculture, and luckily he got a vote of confidence from the Parliament as well.

The disagreements between the two leaders were not limited to the nomination of cabinet ministers, but the trend continued, affecting the NUG’s national agenda. Significant issues emerged after the distribution of new electronic national identity cards (e-Tazkira). Additionally, electoral law and appointments of governors, ambassadors, and even deputy ministers, as a result, became clogged and inefficient. The NUG could not achieve most of the benchmarks set out by the National Priority Programs as well as the targets set in the “Realizing Self-Reliance” paper presented in London Conference on Afghanistan 2014.

The lack of true unity and cooperation between the leaders of the unity government led them to opt for a fragmented approach by opposing each other, which led to anarchy and uncertainty. Recently, a former minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, during an expert plenary discussion on the “challenges facing Afghanistan” at the Middle East Institute, mentioned that “the problem of NUG is from its inception,” but reiterated that “NUG will not fail if both leaders put more effort to make the NUG one government, by integrating all their assets into one government, [though] it is hard but that is the way to make the government effective and successful.”

The NUG is at a crucial juncture. On the one hand, local citizens are gradually losing hope and trust that the two leaders can work closely to fulfill their promises; on the other hand, the international community is expecting them to work together in achieving certain benchmarks and targets before the upcoming conferences on Afghanistan in Warsaw and Brussels, which are extremely critical for Afghanistan in order to guarantee the receipt of new commitments on security and development from 2016 through 2020.

To remain in a win-win situation, Ghani and Abdullah must put an end to uncertainty and play their cards wisely, working shoulder-to-shoulder to reach tangible achievements over mere rhetoric. On May 5, in a conference hosted by the European Union on “The Way Forward for Anti-Corruption in Afghanistan,” Ghani admitted that “Last year, we were working with total uncertainty. This year, we are having risks but not uncertainty.” During the conference, he elaborated the institutional, security, economic, and political challenges the NUG faced in realizing reform over the past one-and-a-half years with a list of achievements. These included the establishment of a new council and center to cope with administrative corruption, under his chairmanship, namely the High Council on Governance, Rule of Law and Anti-corruption, and the Specialized Anti-corruption Justice Center.

It is evident that the fight against corruption doesn’t have a fixed recipe considering different socio-economic, political, religious, and cultural barriers and contexts, which vary from country to country. However, it would be safer to consider the best practices of the world rather than applying brand new theories of fighting corruption in Afghanistan. The country’s poor citizens shouldn’t have to pay a heavier price, becoming further humiliated and cursed, as a result of the NUG’s incompetence. Therefore, considering the current situation in Afghanistan, these recommendations should be considered:

An Independent Anti-Corruption Body

The existing anti-corruption bodies—namely the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC), and the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC)—are parallel structures. Both are not able to meet the requirement set in article 6 of UNCAC and have not been effective in the fight against corruption in Afghanistan. The current Director of HOOAC has already given up on tackling corruption. Creating another anti-corruption center, like the so-called Specialized Anti-corruption Justice Center, will further exacerbate the confusion of who does what. Therefore, it would be better to abolish the existing parallel bodies (HOOAC and MEC) or merge them into an Independent Anti-corruption Commission, as envisaged in the Realizing Self-Reliance Paper.

A Palace-Centric Approach

Ghani must focus on macro-level issues and avoid spending his time on micro-level issues, which can come at the cost of significant national agenda items. Afghanistan is going through a crucial phase. The country’s leadership must trust his ability to delegate; it would be better to allow competent, experienced, and energetic delegates to act on the president’s behalf. Afghanistan is not short on young experts and elites.

An Independent Civil Service Commission

The existing Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service should be empowered to focus on replicating the Indian Civil Service Model by creating an annual, truly competitive, and transparent exam system for attracting qualified citizens to government service, rather than focusing on existing the short-term projects like the Capacity Building for Result or the New Generation of Public Administration programs.

Promoting Robust Anti-Corruption Civil Society Organizations

The NUG and the international community should promote anti-corruption CSOs to play watch-dog roles on the performance of the government and donor communities. Integrity Watch Afghanistan is the only active CSO, while others only pop up when they obtain donor funding. To ensure a robust role for CSOs, anti-corruption activists and whistleblowers must be protected from the corrupt officials they seek to regulate.

Ensure Accountability and Asset Registration

The NUG must ensure accountability and asset registration, requiring such a declaration by all senior high officials at the center and in provinces. Those officials suspected of corruption scandals shouldn’t enjoy impunity for being close allies of either the president or the CEO. No one should enjoy impunity as in the past. The big fishes are swimming freely today, either holding high-level positions in government or living abroad. Meanwhile, innocents, without any political backup, are sacked from their jobs and some of them are even put behind bars.

Najibullah Noorzai is an Afghan researcher specializing in the areas of rule of law, anti-corruption, counter-narcotics, and security.

Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief