Hints of an Afghan Spring

Afghans push back against corruption
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai returns from inspecting the guard of honor during the Independence Day celebrations at the Defence Ministry compound in Kabul. Photograph by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

The clock is ticking for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. With only two years left in his term, he is running out of time to implement his self-declared 23-page decree from July 27 to completely eradicate bribery, nepotism, and cronyism from Afghanistan. We’ve heard Karzai sing this tune of anti-corruption many times already. Will this particular performance lead to any real change?

Well, several top government officials are currently under investigation for corruption. Perhaps that’s progress. On Aug. 4, the Afghan parliament voted to dismiss Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi after lawmakers were unsatisfied with their responses to vague questions over corruption and cross-border rocket attacks from Pakistan. On Aug. 11, Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal was asked to step down while he is investigated for corruption.

Then again, the moves are said to be largely political, and Karzai has stayed strangely quiet about these corruption allegations. It’s highly unlikely he or his family members will ever be implicated. Some form of kleptocracy will continue—at least till the 2014 election, when Karzai’s time is officially up.

This most recent anti-corruption revelation came on the heels of the July 7-9 Tokyo Conference, in which about 70 countries and international organizations pledged $16 billion in non-military aid to Afghanistan over the next four years.

We’ve seen such generosity before. Some aid has gone to people who need it, while others have simply been ignored. Certain funds have gone toward the salaries of aid workers, while some has gone toward kickbacks to government officials. It’s a familiar story of corruption that we’ve seen in many countries and will continue to see in Afghanistan. In fact, local corruption has claimed more than $1 billion of the $8 billion in foreign aid given in the past eight years, Huguette Labelle, chairwoman of anti-corruption organization Transparency International, wrote in the New York Times last month. That’s hardly a shocking figure, given that Afghanistan ranked 182 out of 183 in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

This doesn’t bode well for real change in the corrupt status quo in the two years until foreign troops finally withdraw from the country and Karzai steps down. Throw the chronic security issues and regional tensions into the mix and it all makes a dangerous cocktail.

Then again, there could be an unintended positive consequence arising from this volatile, corrupt mix: Afghanistan’s version of the Arab Spring. Yes, the original Arab Spring had multiple roots—everything from authoritarianism to unemployment and government corruption. While Afghanistan is at a different stage of its political and economic development, with a different local dynamic, comparable youth-led challenges to government corruption have been brewing for a while. Much like their Arab counterparts, young Afghan protesters have sometimes made use of social media to make their point. With 60 percent of the country’s population under age 25, there is potential for more recruits.

In March last year, a Facebook movement called “Reformists” emerged, counting over 1,500 university students in Kabul and another 3,000 from other parts of the country as members. Inspired by the Arab Spring, their stated goal was to act as a grassroots movement that could challenge government about key issues. The group even held a press conference in the capital last March to raise awareness about its main goal: pressuring the Afghan government to stop corruption. This was followed by a peaceful procession in which protesters demanded Karzai dismiss government ministers dogged by corruption allegations.

More recently, there has been a renewed drive among middle-class youth from schools and universities to speak out against government corruption. The group, called the “Afghan Spring,” has a growing Facebook presence led by Ajmal Sohail, leader of the Afghan Liberal Party. Members regularly debate the state of governance in the country and want to use social media to promote protests against corruption. In July, anti-government protests that surfaced in the capital involved an additional youth group, the Afghanistan Youths National and Social Organization. The group led a rally outside Parliament, shouting to root out government corruption. Protestors called on members of Parliament to cleanse themselves and start acting in the interest of the people.

Growing youth activism could challenge the corrupt status quo in Afghanistan over the next two years. At the very least, Afghanistan’s version of the Arab Spring, using social media and protests to combat government corruption, could significantly hamper whatever plans Karzai (and his family) may have for his home stretch in power.

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