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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
New scourge of Afghan society
By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

Traffic in Kabul
Taxi drivers struggle with more corruption and more jams

Corruption is the new scourge of Afghan society - and it is driving a lot of people into the hands of the Taleban.

Everybody talks about it and is affected by it - from taxi drivers, shop owners and officials - and most agree that corruption is spreading like a cancer through the vitals of society.

The Afghan government says it has launched a holy war against corruption, led by President Hamid Karzai's handpicked Attorney General, Abdul Jabbar Sabit.

The government has sacked, jailed and suspended dozens of officials all over the country for bribe taking.

Openly taking bribes

But all this is not enough - people continue to suffer, and corruption by officials has taken on the shape of public extortion.

Cyclist in Kabul
Salaries are low in a war-torn society

One morning recently I took a walk from the BBC bureau and arrived at Kabul's Ansari square. The place was brimming with traffic.

At the square was a traffic officer- wearing the white shirt and hat of the official traffic uniform. He was openly taking bribes - or baksheesh - from taxi drivers.

When he realised that I was a journalist, he pretended nothing had happened.

Kabul taxi driver Noor Agha, 34, has been driving since the fall of Taleban in 2001.

"There is more corruption than ever before, I pay traffic police all the time in Kabul. Nothing gets done without bribes."

Taxi drivers have to pay anything between from 10 to 300 Afghanis (20c to $6) to traffic police in Kabul - other Afghans admit they have to pay thousands of dollars for other things.

In fact, corruption now goes beyond the streets and deep into government offices and ministries.

Take, for example, the interior ministry. When I visited, there was a long queue of people waiting - most of them with papers in their hands.

Police help extinguish blaze after suicide bombing in Kandahar
Police are in the forefront of the battle against corruption

Among them was 39-year-old Yar Mohammad from the south-eastern province of Paktika.

"I am here to transfer my job from Paktika border police to Khost. Inside the ministry they are asking me for $200. But I didn't join the police force to pay money and I don't have that kind of money."

Haji Daoud, 73, has came to Kabul to solve a tribal feud from Kundoz province.

"I am here to ask for my rights, but the people at the ministry are asking me for $15,000 to provide me with justice. How can this be right?"

Outside Afghanistan's central passport office there is a big queue - most people have come from the provinces.

They complain they have to pay bribes in order to get their passports.

One of them is Ajmal, 29, from Khost province who is here to obtain an Afghan passport to travel to the Gulf.

'Better salaries'

"They are telling me that I am not an Afghan but from Pakistan, so I must pay $300 if I want to get a passport.

"I voted in the elections, I was born here, but because of the war I lived my entire life in (the Pakistani region of) South Waziristan."

A senior official at Afghanistan's interior ministry admits that corruption is a problem, but he blames it on war, lack of capacity and lack of proper support from the international community.

"We have had 30 years of war, police salaries are low, the cost of living very high, and we need better salaries.

Women in Afghanistan
All sections of society suffer because of corruption

"Corruption will only vanish once we deny people the reasons to be corrupt. We also need to fire corrupt officials at the highest level. If we don't, then people will lose more trust in the Afghan government," he says.

Many Afghan officials are not keen openly to admit that corruption is widespread.

But Mirwais Yasini, a Member of Parliament in the lower house of the Afghan parliament is not so reticent.

"Afghanistan has topped the world's list of corrupt countries - it's like Nigeria," he says.

Other Afghans, like office worker Wagma Karimi, agree that corruption is at an all time high.

"In my view corruption and bribes have reached a stage beyond the imagination," he said.

"In the past when someone was asking for bribes he would do so in secrecy - but now it happens openly and no one seems to do any work without extra inducements."

All this is a far cry from 2001, when President Karzai came to power with the backing of International community.

Afghans were promised reconstruction, security and a corruption-free country - for the time being that dream appears to have evaporated at the hands of the fraudsters, pilferers and petty crooks.

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