A narco nation on the take

WHEN it comes to governing the violent, fractious lands of Afghanistan, everything has its price.

Want to be a provincial police chief? It will cost you $100,000.

Want to drive a convoy of trucks loaded with fuel across the country? Be prepared to pay $6,000 per truck, so the police will not tip off the Taliban.

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Need to settle a lawsuit over the ownership of your house? About $25,000, depending on the judge.

"It is very shameful, but probably I will pay the bribe," said Mohammed Naim, a young English teacher, as he stood in front of the Secondary Courthouse in Kabul. His brother had been arrested a week before, and the police were demanding $4,000 for his release. "Everything is possible in this country now. Everything."

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is riven by corruption. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, including Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country's opium trade, now the world's largest.

In the streets and government offices, hardly a public transaction seems to unfold that doesn't require a bribe, a gift or, for beggars, harchee – whatever you have in your pocket.

The corruption, publicly acknowledged by Karzai, is contributing to the collapse of public confidence in his government and to the resurgence of the Taliban, whose fighters have moved to the outskirts of Kabul, the capital.

"All the politicians in this country have acquired everything – money, lots of money," Karzai said in a speech at a rural development conference in November. "God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen."

Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, said: "This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over." He quit his job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. "The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated."

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People pay bribes for large things, and for small things too: to get electricity for their homes, to get out of jail, even to enter the airport.

Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption. But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a German organisation that gauges honesty in government, ranked Afghanistan 117 out of 180 countries in 2005. This year it fell to 176.

"Every man in the government is his own king," said Abdul Ghafar, a truck driver. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police, who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several times in a day.

Nowhere is the scent of corruption so strong as in the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur. Before 2001 it was a vacant patch of hillside that overlooked the stately neighbourhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Today it is the wealthiest enclave in the country, a series of gaudy, grandiose mansions that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Afghans refer to them as "poppy houses". Sherpur itself is often jokingly referred to as "Char-pur", which literally means "City of Loot".

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Sherpur is that many of the homeowners are government officials whose annual salaries would not otherwise enable them to live here for more than a few days.

Often, the corruption is blatant.

Farooq Farani has been coming to Kabul's Secondary Courthouse for seven years, trying to resolve a property dispute. His predicament is a common one here. He fled the country in 1990, as the civil war began, and returned after the fall of the Taliban, only to find a stranger occupying his home.

Yet seven years later the title to Farani's house is still up for grabs. Farani said he had refused to pay bribes demanded by the judge, who in turn had refused to settle his case.

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"You are approached indirectly by intermediaries – this is how it works," said Farani, who spent his exile in Wiesbaden, Germany. "My house is worth about $50,000, and I've been told that I can have the title if I pay $25,000 – half the value of the home."

The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans such as Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.

"I won't do it," Farani said outside the courthouse. "It's a matter of principle. Never."

"But I don't have my house either, and I don't know that I ever will."

Troops need support to tackle Taliban

US vice-president-elect Joe Biden was told yesterday that thousands of new American troops expected in southern Afghanistan will need more helicopters and other support to beat back surging Taliban violence.

Biden met US General David McKiernan, head of the Nato-led force in Afghanistan.

"General McKiernan explained the current situation and talked about the incoming troops and the need for additional enablers… things like helicopters, engineers, military police, transportation assets," said Colonel Greg Julian, a US military spokesman. "As we expand in the south we will need those additional enablers to cover for the troops."

The US is rushing up to 30,000 troops over to Afghanistan, some of whom will go to its volatile southern provinces, to combat a Taliban insurgency that has sent violence to record levels.

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