KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghans have a name for the huge, gaudy mansions that have sprung up in Kabul's wealthy Sherpur neighborhood since 2001. They call them "poppy palaces."
The cost of building one of these homes, which are adorned with sweeping terraces and ornate columns, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many are owned by government officials whose formal salaries are a few hundred dollars a month.
To the capital's jaded residents, there are few more potent symbols of the corruption that permeates every level of Afghan society, from the traffic policemen who shake down motorists to top government officials and their relatives who are implicated in the opium trade.
Cronyism, graft and the flourishing drug trade have destroyed public confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai and contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban by driving disaffected Afghans to side with insurgents and protecting an important source of their funding.
With casualties mounting and a decision on military strategy looming, President Obama and other Western leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to justify sending troops to fight for a government rife with corruption.
This month, when Karzai was declared the winner of an election marred by rampant fraud, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan warned that without major reforms, the Afghan president risked losing the support of countries that supply more than 100,000 troops and have contributed billions of dollars in aid since the Taliban was toppled in 2001.
Karzai has publicly acknowledged the corruption and pledged to "make every possible effort to wipe away this stain." On Monday, the interior minister, national security director, attorney general and chief justice of the Supreme Court joined forces to announce a new crime-fighting unit to take on the problem.
But in the streets, bazaars and government offices, where almost every brush with authority is said to result in a bribe, few take the promises to tamp down corruption seriously.
"It's like a sickness," merchant Hakimullah Zada said. "Everyone is doing it."
In these tough economic times, Zada said, there's one person he can count on to visit his tannery: a city inspector.
The lanky municipal agent frowns disapprovingly when he finds Zada and five other leather workers soaking and pounding hides in the grimy Kabul River and demands his cut -- the equivalent of about $40.
"He says we are polluting the river," Zada says. "So we have to pay every day. Otherwise, he will report us to the municipality, and they will close down our shops."
A 2008 survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan found that a typical household pays about $100 a year in bribes in a country where more than half the population survives on less than $1 a day.
Government salaries start at less than $100 a month, and almost everything has its price: a business permit, police protection, even release from prison. When Zada was afraid of failing his high school exams, he handed his teacher an envelope stuffed with more than 1,500 Afghanis -- about $30. He passed with flying colors.
The corruption extends to the highest government officials and their relatives. Even Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has long been suspected of cooperating with drug barons, charges he denies.
Abdul Jabar Sabit, a former attorney general who between 2006 and 2008 declared a jihad, or holy war, against corruption, said he quickly learned that a class of high-ranking officials is above the law. They include members of parliament, provincial governors and Cabinet ministers.
"I wanted to tear that curtain down, but I could not do it," he said over tea in his modest sitting room at the top of a rundown apartment block.
As required by the constitution, he said, he wrote repeated letters to parliament requesting permission to investigate charges against 22 members ranging from embezzlement to murder. "Despite all my letters, the issue never made it onto the agenda of either house," he said.
Sabit estimates that he filed corruption charges against more than 300 provincial officials before he was dismissed in 2008. Few were convicted, and "none of them are in jail now," he said.
Obama and other world leaders have told Karzai that they expect him to take concrete steps to back up his promises to fight corruption. Karzai counters that donor countries share responsibility for the problem because of poor management of the funds pouring in for development projects, a concern shared by U.N. officials.
Among the practices raising alarm is the so-called flipping of contracts, which are passed along from subcontractor to subcontractor. Each one takes a cut until there is little money left for the intended project. The result is often long construction delays and shoddy workmanship.