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.