Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Endemic corruption in Afghanistan amounts to a virtual tax on poverty-stricken Afghans, robbing them of the equivalent of a quarter of the war-racked nation's annual gross domestic product, a U.N. report says.
The report, released Tuesday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says nearly 60% of Afghans regard corruption as their biggest worry, surpassing concerns about the insurgency and joblessness.
As President Hamid Karzai's government prepares for a crucial international aid conference in London on Jan. 28, it is likely to face tough questions about measures underway to battle corruption, a problem his administration has struggled with for years.
Corruption at every level of Afghan society has undermined the population's confidence in the government -- confidence Washington says is sorely needed before the Taliban can be defeated.
One of the most striking elements of the report involves bribes: The study found the average amount was $160, and that one in two Afghans had paid at least one kickback to a public official within a year.
"Bribery is a crippling tax on people who are already among the world's poorest," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the Office on Drugs and Crime, said in a statement released by the world body. "The Afghans say it is impossible to obtain a public service without paying a bribe."
The total amount of bribes Afghans paid in the last year, $2.5 billion, roughly paralleled the money generated by the country's opium trade, which the Office on Drugs and Crime estimated at $2.8 billion.
Afghans said they were asked to pay a bribe in 40% of their encounters with senior politicians, typically to cut through red tape or avoid poor service, the report states.
Despite the rife corruption, only 9% of Afghans in urban centers said they had reported any to authorities, the report says.
Costa, who released the report in London, urged "the new Afghan government to make fighting corruption its highest priority." He called for public officials to disclose their incomes and assets and for the removal of governors and local government officials "with proven records of collusion with shady characters."
In Kabul, meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reported that two U.S. troops were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, bringing the number of Americans killed in the country this year to 18.