By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A08
KABUL -- Corruption has soared in recent years as the United States and other international donors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Afghanistan, giving the Taliban a powerful tool to delegitimize the Afghan government, according to a new national survey.
The survey, which was scheduled to be released Thursday by the Kabul-based anti-corruption group Integrity Watch Afghanistan, suggests that Afghans see their country's police and judicial officials as the most corrupt in the government -- a troubling finding at a time when the U.S. mission here relies heavily on bolstering the credibility and professionalism of Afghan security forces.
It also shows that corruption disproportionately affects poor Afghans and that it is more entrenched in rural areas, where NATO forces are trying to weaken the Taliban and institute government control.
The authors say the survey provides the most comprehensive look to date at the scope and dynamics of petty corruption in Afghanistan, drawing from interviews with about 6,500 people conducted late last year in all but two of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
American lawmakers and U.S. commanders have grown increasingly concerned about Afghanistan's endemic corruption, which they see as a growing threat to international military and aid efforts at a time when support for the war is waning in the United States and NATO capitals.
"It has become a phenomenon that is more widespread and really institutionalized," said Lorenzo Delesgues, co-director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan. "It has become easier for people to get away with corruption, and you have more money flowing in."
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police forces; the Justice Ministry; and the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, are seen as the most corrupt government departments, according to the survey.
Roughly 28 percent of households surveyed reported having paid a bribe last year. Of those, about 78 percent are in rural areas.
Last year, Afghans paid roughly $1 billion in bribes, nearly twice the amount paid in 2007, according to estimates based on the survey. The sum is equal to nearly a third of the country's annual budget.
The most common types of bribes were paid for favorable disposition of court cases and for police protection, the study said. The average bribe paid to influence a judicial official was $135, while the average bribe paid to a police officer was $123.
Bribes were also commonly paid for routine government services, such as electricity, the issuance of passports and national identification forms, and access to education.
"Just to get a signature from a low-ranking official in this country you need to pay a bribe," said Afghan lawmaker Sayed Rahman, who is critical of the government's efforts to fight corruption.
Recent military offensives in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan have been hindered by lukewarm public support for corrupt local officials.
On a recent patrol in Kandahar city, where NATO officials are attempting to boost the government as part of a military campaign, a village elder told a Canadian soldier that he was happy to work with coalition troops but that he had no faith in his government.
"When we have them bring an electrician from the municipal government, we have to pay him" a bribe, Karim Mohammed said. "The people who have power and authority, they can do everything. For us poor people, there's nothing."
The Taliban has seized on that frustration, highlighting in its propaganda the prevalence of corruption. About 50 percent of respondents in the survey said corruption was helping the Taliban expand its influence.
"The Taliban [has] been able to gain some credibility," Delesgues said. During its years in power in the 1990s, the Taliban provided few basic services but discouraged dishonesty with a swift and often-brutal justice system. "There was more accountability," he said. "They were ruling by fear."
U.S. lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about corruption in Afghanistan.
Last month, congressional investigators issued a report suggesting that a U.S. military convoy protection contract was enriching corrupt officials and insurgents.
Days later, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), announced that she would block funding for nonessential projects until the government demonstrates that taxpayer money won't be siphoned.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai created an office to coordinate anti-corruption efforts last year. Critics say the initiative has had little impact because it has a small budget and very little reach outside Kabul.