Afghanistan: Progress Through Trust and Effective Governance
Afghanistan’s 911, or 119
In the United States, everyone knows to call 911 in an emergency. In Afghanistan, the number is in reverse: 119. It is a nascent system for fires, emergencies, and to call for police, but the Afghan Ministry of Interior, which created and publicized the system, in a collaboration that involved international governance experts, hopes it will become more widely used to report corruption and other crimes. The system recently led to the arrest of three armed thugs with police arriving in less than five minutes. Inciting quite a stir, the success of the 119 system gave a much-needed boost to Afghan governance credibility.
As an advisor to the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, coalition and Afghan counterparts constantly remind me of past attempts at counterterrorism and nation building strategies that have been inconsistent at best over the last 15 years. Most remember that we tried spending our way to victory. The now infamous awarding of lucrative contracts and allowing excessive vehicle and commodity purchases without accountability, paving the way to abuses and massive corruption by the powerful and politically connected in Afghanistan.
But those heady days are gone and other than annual allotments we do not have anything to offer our Afghan counterparts but expertise. Knowing this, Afghans still occasionally ask for funding, eliciting the familiar refrain about needing resources, whether its people, supplies or something else. Our only options are empathy and creative solutions that do not involve supplementary funding.
Once Afghan officials realize that additional resources are not forthcoming; however, they are usually eager to work on collective solutions to improve government efficacy. The 119 system is one such example, developed in partnership between EUPOL, a European Union mission working to support the Afghan government’s reform efforts in building a civilian police service, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the U.S. government. The three partners working together provide equipment and technical infrastructure, training (not just technical, but instruction in basic or “soft” skills such as call taking), and public awareness. Employing women is also a top priority.
The 119 system is just the beginning of many reforms needed to curb corruption and set the Afghan government on the course of successful governance. My mission as a DoD civilian advising the Afghan Inspector General (IG) is to use my experience with the law, accounting, and IG operations to facilitate these reforms, especially as it relates to investigations and processes for reducing corruption.
Fighting Corruption and Building Confidence
My colleagues and I work to assist the Interior Ministry’s Inspector General (IG) office, provide technical expertise and help them build internal capacity. All IG offices in affluent or developed countries have audit, inspection, and investigation sections. The ministry’s IG office has a similar structure, but without the systems in place to effectively carry out those functions.
Currently one of our problems relates to ghost employees on the payroll, where an Afghan official receives pay for an inflated number of employees and pocketing the excess funds. Our new, integrated personnel and pay system for soldiers and police will require employee biometrics to verify identification and authorize salary payments each month, saving Afghanistan millions each year which can be used to strengthen its security. It will also provide identification which can be used to establish bank accounts, obtain passports, and access to other public services.
In a recent collaboration, we worked with a young, highly educated and experienced Afghan to develop a systematic method for choosing audit sites, organizations, and procedures. To accomplish this, we needed a new policy and procedures document based on effective risk assessment. Each side agreed to compose a draft that would be the basis for the new policy. When we met a week later, our Afghan counterpart had produced a work of art complete with a glossary, flowchart, diagrams, and host of substantive policies and procedures. His system will save his government millions of dollars, enabling them to plan and execute real-time audits for the riskiest, costliest projects. The ability to monitor expenditures and inventory will significantly reduce future fraud, waste, and abuse.
A technical, administrative reform like this can save lives, including ours. Stolen weapons and ammunition often end up in enemy hands. Other items, such as fuel, are believed to be funding the enemy. This one system is already reducing such “disappearances.”
Local Afghan ingenuity exemplified here lies in the hands of its young people, many of whom are well educated and enthusiastic about making a positive difference in Afghanistan. Afghan officials feel empowered to now “own” the internal control process. With professionalization, they have developed a curriculum, conducted dozens of training sessions, and made plans to introduce and implement this system throughout the government.
Recent polling shows that citizens’ trust in the government is at an all-time high. In the past, many Afghans expressed more trust in the Taliban. Furthermore, Afghanistan has moved up in Transparency International’s anti-corruption ratings, doubling their score since just 2013. A positive sign that the people of Afghanistan have taken note of anti-corruption efforts and a growing confidence in Afghan governance.
These successes are small but important ones, with more to follow. Demonstrating that the coalition’s efforts are working and that Afghanistan is on a path to independent governance and security. As the U.S. government reevaluates its commitment to Afghanistan, we should not only focus on the cost but also consider the gains and progress made. A small but significant step towards a secure and independent Afghanistan.
Anthony Box serves as a Transparency, Accountability, and Oversight advisor for the Afghanistan Ministry of Interior.
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.