What corruption indexes don’t tell us about Afghanistan

The US-led international community’s stability-first approach has neglected establishment of the rule of law.

An Afghan shopkeeper listens to Islamic State Radio at his shop in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province [AP]
An Afghan shopkeeper listens to Islamic State Radio at his shop in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province [AP] [The Associated Press]

Three global watchdog reports came out last week highlighting Afghanistan’s scornful predicament in 2015. Their findings reveal a rise in corruption and human rights violations and a consistent failure in political freedom and civil liberties.   

Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index placed Afghanistan at 166th among 168 nations. World Report 2015, published by Human Rights Watch, criticised the war-ravaged country for failure to effectively tackle abuses in key areas. Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World 2016 Report ranked Afghanistan among countries that are “Not Free”.

While it is true that the Afghan government and its international supporters must be alarmed by these findings, rankings and scores in such global annual reports must be contextualised if they are to inform policy.

Anger over phone card tax in Afghanistan

In the case of Afghanistan, these scorecards only describe symptoms of more fundamental problems.

The ongoing conflict that expanded and became more brutal in 2015 has contributed greatly to the bleak human rights situation as well as to the shrinking of civil liberties and political freedoms in restive areas.

International community

Another factor, which is often omitted from such reports, is the heavy hand of the international community, especially the United States, in shaping events in Afghanistan from 2001 onwards.

But above all, endemic corruption, continued rights violations and restricted civil liberties are symptoms of weakness in the implementation of the rule of law.

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From denying information to journalists to beating of traffic police to the impossibility of winning a contract in a tender process sans association with influential people, liberties, rights and transparency are impeded because rule of law has hitherto been ignored.

Afghanistan's political and social culture was deeply rooted in the concept of justice. In fact, the concept of 'just ruler' is a cornerstone of Islamic theories of governance...


Rule of law is generally defined as the system that renders governments, institutions and individuals accountable to and governed by laws and regulations and prevents arbitrary action. It has to be applied equally and without favouritism to any individual, group or power holder.

Afghanistan’s political and social culture was deeply rooted in the concept of justice. In fact, the concept of “just ruler” is a cornerstone of Islamic theories of governance and arguably the most important legitimising factor of the state.

In the new political culture, living above the law has become one of the distinguishing privileges of the influential elite.

One must not underestimate the depth and breadth of the damage that three decades of conflict and lawlessness have inflicted on Afghanistan.

Added to that was the irresponsible behaviour of the international community and the Afghan political leadership since 2001, which squandered the opportunity to establish good governance and rule of law in the country.

Stability at all cost

The US and its coalition partners went into Afghanistan in 2001, hand-picking some of the most unsavoury characters from the former mujahideen leaders and commanders as their allies.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani [EPA]
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani [EPA]

The international community’s Afghan policy was founded on maintenance of stability at all cost. Good governance, rule of law and justice were peripheral topics that only decorated official documents and speeches.

As foreign aid began to pour in, most contracts for infrastructure construction, military supplies, fuel, logistics and security were awarded to the same dubious personalities who, thanks to US patronage, had become the new political elite.

The US largesse to its Afghan allies also entailed turning a blind eye to illegal trade, monopoly of markets, land grabbing, million-dollar commissions on large contracts and even percentages from the lucrative narcotics business.

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Political influence, along with millions of dollars into their bank accounts, empowered the new Afghan elite to command placement of their kin and cronies in key positions in all state institutions, including the parliament and the judiciary.


In other words, foreign assistance gave Afghanistan all the right structures and legal instruments required in a democratic system, but establishing and monitoring processes were mostly ignored.

The absence of political will, both on the part of former president Hamid Karzai’s government and donor countries to curb corruption, not only prevented the establishment of lawful conduct in the public sector, but also impaired the flourishing of a genuine domestic economy.

US taxpayer money

Lack of oversight and accountability in the Afghan security sector, intentional or otherwise, has caused an utter waste of US taxpayer money. The US has been contributing billions of dollars to build and maintain Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF).

Similar to the lucrative contracts of the earlier stages of war, allocation of funding for militia forces ... went to the same influential people...


Yet, the staggering scale of ghost personnel, fuel cost and disappearing ammunitions have gone entirely unchecked.

Along with the decision to end the US war in Afghanistan, Washington opted to create local militia forces to fill the gaps in the developing ANSDF.

Similar to the lucrative contracts of the earlier stages of war, allocation of funding for militia forces (under the sobriquet of Afghan Local Police) went to the same influential people, giving them further impetus to behave above the law.

President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah took the reins of power over a year ago, assuring Afghans and international donors that they had the will to establish rule of law and good governance. Ghani further asserted that he has specific plans for accomplishing these colossal goals.

Among Ghani’s first efforts are the creation of the National Procurements Commission to review big government contracts, the reopening of the messy Kabul Bank case, the firing of a number of central as well as provincial high officials suspected of corruption or incompetence, and improved communications with provincial officials.

Recently, the Afghan president elevated the role of governors in decision-making and monitoring of provincial affairs and started a process of budgetary devolution. In turn, he has placed more responsibility on his governors to curb local corruption.

In the past year, some progress has been made towards establishing effective processes, but earnest action against major instigators of corruption remains to be taken. To establish rule of law requires tackling the political elite and their well-entrenched patronage networks. This task, in turn, requires a full, honest and sustained partnership between the Afghan government and its international supporters. 

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.