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As America has recently been focused (as it so loves to do) on the shame and social dismemberment of Generals Petraeus and Allen, it kind of got overlooked that another 4-star, General William “Kip” Ward was demoted a rank due to allegations of misuse of government funds (Kip, incidentally,  is another member of the Penn State tribe–got his Masters there).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as the “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favour.” There’s a case to be made that embezzlement involves private duties being misused, but for most of us, corruption is about abuse of power by public officials. By officials we trust to be honest and straightforward. (-ish. Everyone’s a cynic when it comes to public officials).

Here’s another interesting set of facts for you. Transparency International did studies to measure how corrupt people perceive their officials to be, and while you may think Americans are cynical, the most corrupt countries in the line-up are:

  1. Somalia and North Korea (tie!)
  2. Afghanistan and Myanmar (aka Burma)
  3. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Sudan
  4. Iraq and Haiti
  5. Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, and Burundi

(New Zealand, incidentally, is winning for being the least corrupt. The US rings in at 24th from the top.)

So as bad as we think we have it, it’s really not so bad. Sure, we might be a culture of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but we have nothing on Afghanistan.

In one of the districts in Khost Province, I met a man working for the Afghan National Police. While these police can be moved around the country, he was from the local area, as were many of his men. It turns out that people are often more inclined to protect their own and are less likely to steal from them, but on the flip side, having police from the local area also means that their families are susceptible to intimidation. So how effective police are can be hit or miss, and that’s assuming that they’re good guys.

This particular fellow, let’s call him Kareem, was a real go-getter. He’d been chasing and single-handedly slaying insurgents (according to himself) for years. To his credit, he was much more pro-active than many of his counterparts. He was about 5’10”, wiry, with black hair, dark tanned skin, a substantial mustache, and usually several days of scruff. It was hard to guess his age–he had the energy of a young man, but lines around his eyes that said he was in his late 30s at least. The fact that he was married with four kids is not a huge indicator.

Kareem worked hard. He happily worked with his American counterparts, but even more happily went out and took care of business on his own without US support, which was kind of a rarity. He was high-intensity, but perpetually angry. He had been listening in on an interview I was conducting while out on patrol one day, and after the villager finished by saying the local elders were all great and had walked away, Kareem scowled.

“The elders are all thieves. They take money that’s supposed to be for everyone. They’re corrupt.”

Curious, I asked, “Is it just elders who are thieves?”

He shook his head sharply. “Everyone. The police are the worst. Even when they don’t extort money from the population, they are corrupt toward each other. You have to pay just to get promoted. It doesn’t matter how good you are. Or how bad. You only get promoted if you have the money. That’s why I’m still a Lieutenant. I refuse to pay. I’d rather give my money to my family and my village.”

Sadly, that wasn’t just the ranting of a disgruntled employee. It’s pretty widely known that in many sectors of the Afghan military and police force, the only way to get promoted is to pay your way up. Not all, but many. And as for extortion, the UN’s Office and Drugs and Crime has research that shows at least 25% of all general Afghans have paid a bribe to a police member in the past year.  Police have the worst record, but other offices, including the courts, teachers and even doctors, are not far behind.

So I asked Kareem what needed to be done to fix it. He replied, “It’s all the old guard. They are scared and corrupt. We need young, brave, and well-educated people who believe in this country, who are willing to risk everything to make it a better place.” People like him.

But then he sighed. “But those people are exactly the ones who leave as soon as they get the chance, so they can make a real living for themselves in another country.”

He shook his head and stared at the ground.

Brain drain. He was right. “But you’re here fighting, even though you won’t get promoted and your family could be targeted” I said.

He smiled fiercely. “I am. And my family will never be harmed as long as I’m alive. I can protect them and everyone else.”