By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 4, 2009
SP: Chief Zazai, I’d love to get your take today on the subject of corruption, because so much has been written about it recently in the American press–that cleaning up the Karzai government has become a major priority of the new Obama plan, that benchmarks will now be enforced and so on. The Western media have reported that corruption is simply a part of Afghan life, that it can never be eradicated. What do you say to this? Is it true? Is there a tribal component to corruption?
Chief Zazai: Corruption is something that would never be tolerated by the tribes in a tribal leader. The Afghan code of honor (Nanawatai, Melmastia & Badal) are not just three words. If you look deeply into the tribal structure, corruption is a dirty word and those who take bribes or are involved in underhanded doings are labeled as “Reshwat Khoor,” which is an ugly label. A tribal chief gets elected because his father was a good man and his grandfather and people in the tribe believe he would be a good man. But if an elected tribal chief starts stealing money and is involved in other criminal activities, before he even realizes it, he gets voted out and is replaced by someone else. He is also labeled as a corrupt man and no one respects him anymore.
SP: The tribes of course are separate from the central government. What is happening in the Karzai administration? Can you put it in historical context for us?
Chief Zazai: What’s happening today in the Karzai government is another story entirely. It is completely unacceptable. Afghanistan has gone through many turbulences in the past. Afghan history is written with blood, but from the days of the late King Nadir Khan, corruption has not been a primary feature. Nadir Khan reformed Afghanistan and brought peace and stability to the entire country. His son King Mohammad Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan honorably for 40 years, and after him Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan worked day and night to develop Afghanistan and corruption was not seen at all as he was a tough guy and many of his cabinet ministers were afraid of him personally. Even when the Afghan Communists toppled Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan’s government, they too were against corruption. But, when the Najibullah regime fell in 1992 and the so-called Mujahideen (meaning the warlords) took Kabul and started fighting each other for control of the country, then the corruption era started in earnest. Ever since, this menace is stuck on the forehead of the Afghan nation.
SP: Where did the Taliban fit into this?
Chief Zazai: When the Taliban seized power in 1995 and took Kabul in 1996, they also were very much against corruption in general. But their top men, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, were heavily involved in the drug trade. From their point of view, they did not believe that exporting drugs out of Afghanistan was any form of corruption, which is why they were openly taxing any kind of drugs which were being exported! But the Taliban did kill the day-to-day corruption in their administration, which is an open secret and everyone knows this too well. After the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the same brutal warlords were restored to power and the mother of all kinds of corruption became empowered and received the tacit backing of the West because they had made the bet to sponsor these warlords and to include them in the government. That is why corruption has flourished and now is beyond control.
SP: One of the most egregious examples of corruption that we read about in the press is Hamid Karzai’s brother, who is widely reported to be involved in the drug trade. Can you give us any inside insights on this? If we were sitting down with Karzai and he were talking straight, how do you think he would defend this arrangement?
Chief Zazai: I love America, you know why? Because every criminal has a right to defend himself! Even John Gotti and Al Capone had the chances! Let me tell you something, Karzai and his brothers and his entire Noorzai Mafia know America too well, inside out, and they have always said this openly and loud on BBC, CNN and of course on Al Jazeera. So, I guess it is time that the United States of America proves that Karzai and his brothers along with his Noorzai gang are heavily involved in the drug trade, the land mafia, kickbacks and many large construction contracts. It is time for America to teach some hard lessons to these little boys that they cannot always get away with such crimes. Karzai has openly on Afghan TV defended his brother by accusing the NATO and U.S. Coalition top officers of being involved in smuggling drugs out of Afghanistan themselves. It’s like an accusing game, you accuse me and I will turn around and accuse you and this will continue forever!
SP: The most pernicious form of corruption is when officials, whose role it is to protect the people, instead use their positions of power to exploit the people. How widespread is this sort of abuse in Afghanistan? What forms does it take?
Chief Zazai: This might take many chapters to cover, but let me explain where the main corruption is taking place and where this really starts. We have the government corrupt officials and we have the NGO or white collar corrupt staff.
First, the Government Officials. This starts right from the top men, for example, the Minister of the Interior is getting ready to appoint a Provincial Police Chief for a key province, meaning a province that is ripe for exploitation–one which is more developed commercially and has more population or dominates one of the main import routes from Pakistan, Iran & Central Asia. What happens? Usually the minister would only appoint a person who can pay from half a million to a million U.S. dollars to obtain this key lucrative position. When the individual pays such amount to the Interior Minister and gets the job, from day one his main objective is to make back the money he paid as a bribe to the minister and make two and three times more for himself. Now the pressure “rolls downhill” to the district police chief and that’s how the whole system gets polluted. Anyone who can pay will get away with any crime in the district, provincial and capital level, which means every crime has its price and these brokers wear the uniforms of police, whose sworn constitutional duty is to protect the people, but in this case their real job is to rob the people and steal from them using the police power. So, the corruption in this case is from top to bottom, and maybe the minister might be giving a share of the loot to the President, his immediate family or his agents.
The second big kind of corruption is white-collar or NGO [Non-Governmental Agency] corrupt officials or staff. Every contract given to a private construction company comes with a price tag. Ten, fifteen, twenty and in some cases 25% is paid up front to the person who has the authority to give these contracts to companies and the company who gets awarded pays the above percentages to that particular official. This practice is very common and it is done the way that it is almost legal and it is okay to do. Then the company who got the contract with paying the 25% up front sells the same contract to another company for 5 or 10% profit and makes the second company the subcontractor. The subcontractor then turns around and sells the same contract to another company for 5% or 10% profit and makes that company as a sub-subcontractor. In some cases it is even worse, in that almost 60% is paid in kickbacks and the final contractor is left with only 40% to complete the job! How the hell can anyone build a building with 40% left over and expect to make a profit as well?
A few years ago, USAID was trying to build 250 BHUs (Basic Health Units) around Afghanistan. The initial fund to build such BHUs was $250,000 per BHU. Later USAID found that only $25,000 was spent per BHU! In each BHU $225,000 was taken by the contractors! Can you imagine the extent of corruption? It is absolutely unbearable and if things continue the way they are, it is going to be impossible to succeed in Afghanistan.
SP: Can you talk about the emotional effect such abuses of power have on regular everyday people? Does witnessing such corruption drive them to consider siding with the Taliban?
Chief Zazai: Yes. I think when a person cannot earn a loaf of bread, while he is witnessing all this injustice by government officials and corrupt NGO, U.N. staff and so forth, then I believe it is only human for a father or head of the family to go anywhere where he could earn something for his family and kids. A tiny corrupt minority takes advantage of these vast amounts of money while the majority doesn’t get a fraction of it. I think this is an encouraging situation for many to join the Taliban to fight for something which they believe is rightfully theirs.