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In Afghanistan, Inept Bureaucracy Gives Way to Chaotic Kleptocracy

Government: Public service suffered under both warlords and religious fanatics. But with the Taliban, at least the line of command was clear.


JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The director of surgery at the public hospital was a Muslim cleric with no medical experience.

The state bank director had memorized every verse of the Holy Koran but knew nothing of finance.

In all the Taliban provincial offices here, only the mullah who headed the provincial office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice appeared qualified for his job. The duties: beating drug addicts with a leather strap, checking beard lengths and punishing store owners who stayed open during prayer time.

The depleted Afghan bureaucracy charged with keeping this country running has suffered under warlords and religious extremists. Jalalabad public administrator Samsul Haq has served under both and is uncertain which is worse.

The problem with the warlords, who ruled here from 1992 to 1996, is that it was never clear who was in charge, Haq said. By following the command of one warlord, you could easily offend another. With the Taliban, he said, the line of command was brutally clear, leading back to Mullah Mohammed Omar, Commander of the Faithful. But the regime was dominated by unqualified, sometimes corrupt, religious scholars.

In the wake of the Taliban's collapse, it appears that the warlords are making a comeback. "One thief has been replaced by 20 thieves," Haq said in an interview.

A day after the interview, Haq's office was commandeered by one of the new leaders, chief of security Hazirat Ali, a former moujahedeen commander known for his uncanny ability to get along with both the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance.

"Maybe he will give it back in two or three days," Haq said with no great certainty.

New Taxes and Fees Emerge

There have been hesitant attempts to restore some sort of bureaucratic order in this city of 250,000 and the surrounding Nangarhar province, but what is emerging appears to be more of a kleptocracy.

The dilapidated Spin Ghar tourist hotel has begun to charge a hefty hotel tax. None of the hotel staff could explain where the money goes. The tax on an impromptu Thanksgiving banquet hosted by American journalists was $160 in U.S. currency. It did not matter that the journalists bought the nine turkeys--known here as "elephant birds"--at a local market and did much of the cooking on a wood stove and in outdoor earthen ovens.

Border guards on the Afghanistan side of the Khyber Pass have started charging a "transit fee" of $200 to $600 to enter the country. Going the other direction, Hazirat Ali and the other local militia commanders are charging $50 a head to escort visitors, mostly foreign journalists, out of Afghanistan.

Jalalabad has been divided into five police districts. In keeping with the warlord tradition, the new head of one of the districts is the 27-year-old younger brother of the new regional military chief, Haji Mohammed Zaman.

The brother, Aman Zaman, admits that he has no background in police work, although he does wear a pistol. "We are busy searching now for people with policing background to join our force," Zaman said. He said he spends his nights patrolling the neighborhood, which includes the family's large home and orange groves.

An unanswered question under the new regime is who will be appointed to oversee government departments. Under the Taliban, these positions were held by religious scholars, most of whom were graduates of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan.

The head of the Jalalabad National Bank was a man named Qari Wafiullah. In Islamic societies, "Qari" is a title reserved for someone who has memorized all the verses of the Koran, beginning to end.

"He is a qari. How could he know anything about financial matters?" Haq said contemptuously. Haq has a graduate degree in public administration from the University of Nebraska and has the traditional bureaucrat's disdain for incompetent political appointees.

He introduced his staff, which included an engineer, a computer operator and a university graduate with a degree in literature. His point was that underneath the political-religious appointees is a cadre of qualified workers ready to do the work, despite salaries averaging $50 a month.

"There have always been a few people like me who have tried to run the administration effectively," Haq said. "Unfortunately, they are almost always found in the positions of lesser authority."

Haq's dream is that the country's elderly former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, will return from exile in Italy and appoint teams of foreign technocrats to rebuild the bureaucracy, in ruins after more than two decades of war.

Clarity of Taliban Yields to Confusion

Although he is no fundamentalist, Haq admits to some admiration for the clear way in which the Taliban ran the country. What other government, he said, could force all men to wear beards?

"There was one positive thing during the Taliban," Haq said. "It was the only source for making decisions. Now it is getting really confusing again."

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