KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan army is one of the least corrupt parts of a society where more than two-thirds of the citizens think it’s fine for bureaucrats to take bribes. Now that reputation is getting its biggest test: access to more money. Billions of dollars more.
For most of the war, equipment and supplies for the Afghans have been supplied primarily by the foreign militaries operating here. But as the United States and NATO fulfill a vow to withdraw the vast majority of their troops by the end of 2014, Afghan security officials will be expected to do their own purchasing, giving them more opportunities for the kind of bribery and embezzlement that perpetually has Afghanistan ranked among the worst two or three nations on Earth for corruption..
"It is a delicate moment, because if there is a high level of corruption in the military it means that institution will not work, because it will lose the confidence of the people," said Yama Torabi, the director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan group that monitors corruption. "It means, basically, the beginning of collapse of the army."
With the country consumed with anxiety about next year, which features a pivotal presidential election and the complete handover of security to Afghan forces, it’s crucial that the military’s reputation remains sturdy, he said.
"The army is what ensures we won’t slide into civil war,” he said, “but if we are not confident in the army holding together as an institution, but rather being corrupt and easily penetrated by patronage and other corrupting influences, it won’t hold together. It will disappear."
Observers inside and outside Afghanistan have long echoed those views. A study of the Afghan army last year by the RAND Corp., for example, said beating the insurgency required the Afghan public’s continued support and that would require confidence not only in its fighting ability but also in its relative lack of corruption. In short, whether people could trust it.
For most of the war, NATO and other coalition nations have bought the vast majority of vehicles, weapons, aircraft, communications equipment, clothing and individual equipment that the Afghan army and the national police use.
The foreign forces already have transferred the purchasing of food, clothing, individual equipment and service contracts to the Afghan security ministries, said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S. and NATO forces. They expect the transition to full Afghan control to be largely complete by the end of this year.
That’s raised the focus on what the likelihood of corruption will be. A new survey of corruption risk among the world’s militaries by the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International found that Afghanistan wasn’t among the two or three worst-ranked countries – relatively good news. But the risk still was rated "very high."
The most vulnerable area, said Mark Pyman, the director of Transparency International’s defense and security program, lies in military procurement. He estimated that the amount Afghan military-procurement officers will have authority over soon will go from hundred of millions of dollars to perhaps $4 billion a year.
That’s a huge increase for any organization to handle properly, particularly in a place where corruption is essentially part of the culture.
"The acid test here will be does the international community leave in place sufficient safeguards and mechanisms with Ministry of Defense’s procurement so that when it’s in charge, there are ways and means for the international community to assist them in dealing with this significant increase in spending?" Pyman said.
His group found positives for Afghanistan compared with other countries that face huge challenges with corruption. For example, in some countries, the military takes control of mines or oil fields and siphons off the proceeds.
That’s not happening in Afghanistan.
Also, he said, the military’s budget is published publicly in enough detail for corruption to be spotted. He said there seemed to be relatively good controls on the payroll system and no indications of corruption involving companies owned by the military.
The Defense Ministry has established an internal committee to fight corruption that seems to be working. For one thing, it’s determined that there should be a panel from outside the ministry to scrutinize contracts for supplies and equipment.
Transparency International places the risk for corruption within Afghanistan’s security services in the same league as those in India, Turkey and Pakistan, one level up from the worst of the 83 countries studied, which include Algeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
Torabi, the Integrity Watch Afghanistan director, who also is a member of a national panel that makes recommendations on measures to control corruption, agreed that there’s reason for at least mild optimism about how the military will handle the flood of cash.
But there’s also no doubt that corruption exists in the military, and that some will try to take advantage of the new opportunities.
He said he knew of two business owners who were considering placing bids for supplying the military, and who already had been asked for bribes. He described the bribes solicited as being up to $10 million.
"These are really big contracts, and the size of the bribe reflects that," he said.
Another area of vulnerability is hiring. It’s routine in Afghanistan to pay bribes to get a job.
A U.N. survey earlier this month found that even getting a basic government position here often involved corruption. More than half of schoolteachers and members of the national police reported having paid bribes to help secure their jobs.
Recommendations from Transparency International include that the government allow groups such as Torabi’s to participate in oversight.
"They need to make sure you have civil society in their monitoring," Torabi said. "You can have other government agencies in there supposedly doing that, but it might not be real."