Afghanistan’s traffic department might be the most bloated of the country’s nascent bureaucracies. Want a vehicle registration? You’ll need 27 separate signatures. A new driver’s license? You’ll need about a dozen stamps from ministries, agencies and banks.
Those processes are so painstaking and time-consuming that an entire underworld has emerged to bribe public officials into expediting traffic documents. It’s corruption in $30 or $40 bites — far from the millions allegedly stolen here every year. But those small bribes shape the way many Afghans think about their country’s experiment in democracy.
When complaining about corruption, many Afghans say that despite the horrors of the Taliban regime, there was less graft under its government. At a time when the United States is starting to withdraw tens of thousands of troops, a process President Obama highlighted in last week’s State of the Union speech, some Afghans say the return of Taliban rule would at least yield a more honest crop of government officials.
Munir, a 37-year-old former police officer, stood last week in front of the traffic department, railing against corruption and malfeasance. The Afghan government has never been so paralyzed by greed and crime, he said.
“The system is broken,” he said.
He sounded like thousands of Afghans whose experiences with corrupt officials have left them dispirited. Except Munir, who like many Afghans uses only one name, admitted that he is part of the dysfunction.
Every morning, he takes a pile of clients’ license and registration applications to contacts at the traffic department. He slips the officials between $10 and $20, and a document that could take weeks to obtain is finalized in a fraction of the time. Munir pockets between $20 and $40.
This is how he makes $10,000 a year, twice what he earned as a police officer. But his job comes with the awareness that he is now a part of what is broken.
“It’s painful for me,” he said. “I hate the corruption, and I am a part of the corruption.”
‘Like links in a chain’
Munir is one of the “dealers” who work in ministries across Afghanistan, expediting what can be exasperating bureaucratic processes, such as paying taxes and securing business licenses and other documentation. In a country far more modern than it was 10 years ago — with more drivers and more businesses — there’s also more room for graft.
“Any government document you need, I can get it for you,” said Abdul Hadi, another dealer who works mostly out of the traffic department. When asked about the ethics of his profession, he was blunt: “It is not honorable.”
Last year, according to a report released this month by the United Nations and the Afghan government’s anti-graft agency, half of Afghan adults paid bribes while requesting public services, and together those Afghans handed over a total of $3.9 billion. That figure is twice as large as Afghanistan’s domestic revenue, the report said.