High-profile ministers, judges and international aid workers are accused of stealing money or taking bribes. The allegations come from leading figures within the political establishment who claim this type of criminal activity has spread alarmingly since the 2001 US-led invasion.

Mir Hayatullah Pacha Al-Hashimi, deputy minister of justice, said: "I hear that you go to any office for even a very ordinary signature and it will be required to give some money in order to get that signature.

"[Under the Taliban] there was corruption on the top level, like governors and ministers used to take bribes of big amounts. But under them, it was not as common as it is now. This is a fact," he told Al Jazeera.net.

More than four years after the US overthrew the Taliban government, Afghanistan continues to suffer from a weak government infrastructure and a fragile economy.

Attempted bribery

The deputy minister has firsthand experience of the money-making opportunities available to corrupt officials.

Four months ago he was approached at his home by an acquaintance. The man offered him a bundle of dollars as thick "at least as a pocket book", which he refused to take. The bribe was meant to help influence a future land ownership case.

Low wages are cited as the most common reason why corruption is so common. With a high-ranking official such as al-Hashimi getting a wage of about $70 a month, bribes represent an opportunity for extra income.

He is $170,000 in debt. Even if he had no other expenses, it would still take him more than 200 years to settle the account.

"I am taking about $1,000 every month as a loan for my children’s fees and my family rent in Pakistan. My family is still in Pakistan due to lack of good education in Kabul," said al-Hashimi.

Foreign aid

Large amounts of money have been pumped into Afghanistan since the Taliban government fell. According to the US State Department, America alone gave more than $10.3 billion between the fiscal years 2001 and 2006.

Billions of dollars were also pledged during a recent summit in London, with donors including the US, UK, Japan and the World Bank promising the aid as part of a five-year reconstruction strategy.

Reconstruction in Kabul is said to
be minimal

The international plan, called the Afghanistan Compact, was launched in January. It also aims to "combat corruption and ensure public transparency and accountability". However, some senior officials have more immediate concerns.

Frydoon Shirzay, director of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, an organisation tasked with streamlining government institutions and tackling corruption, says current economic problems are due to decades of war and weak government infrastructure left by the Taliban.

"There are two forms of corruption. One is that you actually violate a clearly defined item in the law for personal gain," he told Al Jazeera.net

"The other one is almost like favouritism, that you provide services which are actually legal to person A, not person B, because person A gives you some favours," said the acting director of administrative reform secretariat.

"The second part is to a great extent down to capacity. Even though the number of [government] employees is high, the structure itself is not functioning.

"Most of the work comes down to a very limited number of people who can get it done and that creates a backlog. So, the ones who want to get the service faster will pay to get the service faster."

Where's the money?

Afghans are now wondering where the financial aid given to them from abroad has gone.

"The perception was not created out of the blue. There were all kinds of NGOs [who were corrupt] and there still are. Some of them are very big and well established organisations," said Shirzay.

"Some came with a real goal and they did as much as they could to achieve that. And ironically those are the ones who have the least access to funds. The bigger ones are the more questionable."

While corruption itself is a problem, the impact it has on security is devastating. Many Afghans are disillusioned with the officials who run their country and grassroots support for the insurgency is growing as a result.

Monies vanish

Ramazan Bahsardost, a member of parliament, left his post as planning minister in the government of President Hamid Karzai in December 2004 after his proposal to shut down some NGOs was rebuffed.

"I don't know any real reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghans are living in tents in Kabul"

Ramazan Bahsardost,
member of parliament

Speaking late last year, Bashardost said that a "mafia system" including cabinet members, embassy staff and aid workers was at work in Afghanistan.

"When I was minister of planning, we created a department to check and control the NGOs in Afghanistan. The result was that, for example, 70% of their budget was spent on logistics and administration costs and the salary of workers and luxury cars and houses," he said.

"I don't know any real reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghans are living in tents in Kabul, schools in Kabul don't have chairs, tables or books," he said.

Action needed

Karen Hussmann, of the United Nations Development Programme's anti-corruption unit, said that some NGOs had pocketed money meant for reconstruction. But she said businesses often masqueraded as aid organisations, giving the entire donor community a bad name.

She also said more must be done to stop government officials pocketing money illegally.

"With regards to general political will, there are some signs which are quite worrying.

"If you find somebody in a high decision making position who is quite apparently involved in corruption activities, sometimes they get removed from office, but then they appear after a while in the same ministry and sometimes they even get promoted," said Hussmann.

She warned that moves to ensure Afghanistan remained pluralistic and democratic could become derailed if more is not done to combat corruption.

"If you focus on service delivery and the needs of the people, I think it's extremely important. Otherwise this whole democracy business is going down the drain."