By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
May 18, 2010 - Corruption has constituted a viable threat in Afghanistan for some time, but measures are being taken there to help keep Afghan officials honest. Increased training, as well as salary and compensation reforms for Afghan police and soldiers are among the tools being employed to reduce corruption, Army Col. Thomas J. Umberg, chief of anti-corruption activities for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, said in a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable yesterday.
When officials don't need to take bribes or behave unethically to pay the bills and feed their families, Umberg explained, corruption will decrease across the board.
"If you don't have systems in place that limit opportunities for corruption, you're going to have it," Umberg said. "And then, if you don't pay adequate salaries, then you also create an environment for corruption."
Umberg explained that Afghan soldiers and police historically were underpaid, due in part to their pay system. Rather than being paid in regular installments by the government, soldiers received pay from their leadership, who received a budget for salaries.
"The ... commander would receive the pay for all his soldiers or patrolmen," the colonel explained, "and then [would] pay the soldiers and patrolmen as he thought appropriate. As you can imagine, that provided opportunity for all sorts of different methods of payment."
Now, Umberg said, about 95 percent of Afghan soldiers receive electronic direct deposits for their paychecks, and police are receiving a living wage. Police have been problematic, he added, because they've resorted in some cases to "shaking down" people on the street for their pocket money. Starting patrolmen make $165 monthly, though if they work in a more hostile area, such as southern Afghanistan, they can make as much as $240 a month.
"And in the past, when the patrolmen were grossly underpaid, there were challenges just sort of surviving," Umberg said. "And today, on $165 or $240, you can live in Afghanistan. Now, you can't live all that well, but you certainly can live. So that's one way to meet the challenge."
Training also has helped to reduce corruption. Previously, local stations were given the responsibility of training new recruits on corruption. That has proven to be ineffective for a number of reasons, Umberg said. Now, anti-corruption training is centralized and given before a patrolman reports for duty.
"Part of the training consists of training with respect to ethics and corruption, and the Islamic and Quranic underpinnings with respect to, in essence, stealing from the community," Umberg said. "Because that's what you're doing when you shake down folks or engage in that kind of graft: you're stealing from the community."
The training is very careful to focus on underlying beliefs that prohibit corruption and other dishonest behavior, the colonel said. Because the Quran and Islamic teachings deter dishonesty, there isn't a feeling of imposing ideas on Afghan trainees, said he added.
"We define corruption as where you put your personal interests above that of your job or your mission," he said. "So for example, if you are hiring someone based on criteria other than who would do the best in that job, that's corruption. Obviously, to take a bribe, that's corruption -- you take a bribe to do something that is a detriment to the mission."
Corruption, ethics and issues of honesty are fairly universal ideals, so it's not really necessary to tailor the training to any sort of "cultural norm," the colonel said.
"I don't think we need to impose Western values," he said. "The Islamic and Quranic underpinnings -- as you know, virtually everyone here is Muslim -- they're pretty strong and profound with respect to corruption. So we don't need to impose our values upon them."
Umberg said he sees hope in young Afghans who don't see modernization as a bad thing. They have strong faith, family values and national pride, he said, and those things make them want to make a better Afghanistan.
"I was on an investigation several months ago, and a young, 24-year-old sergeant was reporting corruption on behalf of a senior officer -- at some risk to himself," Umberg said. "I asked him how he had the courage to come forward, and he said, 'I do this for my faith, my family and my country. I'm staying here.'"