News You Really Need To See: “At Afghan Border, Graft Is Part of the Bargain”

“At Afghan Border, Graft Is Part of the Bargain”

The New York Times, November 12, 2014, p.A1

“Some call them ‘the men who sit on golden chairs’ — Afghan customs officials who preside over a vast ecosystem of bribery that stretches from dusty border crossings to the capital.  They have become fabulously wealthy by depriving their aid-dependent treasury of at least $500 million a year, according to the most conservative foreign estimates.  Unseating those kings of customs, or at least stemming their thievery, is now a job for President Ashraf Ghani as he takes up his campaign promise of fighting graft.  Customs is a central factor in rescuing the ailing economy, and accounted for 26 percent of government revenue last year.  Yet in interviews with a wide array of Afghan and foreign officials who live with the issue, a picture emerges of such rampant bribery and extortion that corruption can no longer be described as a cancer on the system: It is the system, they say. And it is deeply enmeshed with Afghan politics. … The scale of the problem is evident at Torkham, a major crossing point on Afghanistan’s southeastern border with Pakistan. Every day, up to 500 trucks trundle across the Khyber Pass, kicking up clouds of dust as they cross into Afghanistan and enter a customs apparatus that has been transformed by a decade of foreign assistance.  The trucks pass a giant X-ray machine delivered by the United States military.  Western-trained officials assess their cargo for import duties.  The paperwork is entered into a computer system paid for by the World Bank.  American-financed surveillance cameras monitor the crossing.  Yet for Afghan officials, every truck represents a fresh opportunity for personal enrichment.  Border guards pocket a small fee for opening the gate, but that is just the start.  Businessmen and customs officials collude to fake invoices and manipulate packing lists.  Quantity, weight, contents, country of origin — almost every piece of information can be altered to slash the customs bill, often by up to 70 percent. … [An] official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job, said he had paid $5,000 to a customs administrator to secure his job, a low-level processing position, 10 years ago.  It was a spectacularly good investment: He now makes up to $4,000 every month on top of his basic salary of $150.  Similar positions now cost at least $15,000 and require political connections, he said.  Every official at the customs post in Torkham and in nearby Jalalabad, where customs fees are paid, is complicit in the scheme, he said — even the office cleaners.  A day earlier, for example, 85 trucks filled with garments had passed through customs, costing the importer $1,400 per truck in bribes: $900 to the customs chief, $250 to the customs broker, and $250 to be divided among various customs officials who facilitated the clearance.”

Quickie Analysis: A rather scary look at the sheer scale of Afghanistan’s corruption.

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