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Just how corrupt is Afghanistan?

Reporter’s notebook: A peek behind the curtain at one of the world’s shadiest nations.

Afghan karzai 2013 12 09Enlarge
Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s now official: Afghanistan ranks as one of the three most corrupt nations on Earth — splitting the crown with Somalia and North Korea, according to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

This is the second year in a row that the trio leads the list of the world's bad guys. In previous years, the best Afghanistan could muster was first runner up.

But just how pervasive is the problem? Can it really be true that after more than a decade under international stewardship, the most widespread skill the population has honed is graft?

More from GlobalPost: Turns out almost 70 percent of the world's nations are seriously corrupt

Let me start by saying that I loved every minute of my seven years in Afghanistan, and am fortunate to count many Afghans as close friends. I have happily put my life in their hands on more than one occasion, and would do so again.

But in many Afghans courage, nobility of spirit and graciousness toward guests exist side by side with rampant venality, fed, no doubt, by a lingering resentment of the foreign occupation.

A feeling that Afghans are owed some reparation for their pain doesn't help much, either.

I have spent significant time in several of Transparency International’s pantheon of the crooked: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Russia — all old haunts of mine — share the bottom third of the scale with Afghanistan.

None of them comes close to the casual disregard for what’s normally considered legality that I saw in my years in Kabul.

It starts at the very top.

One evening several years ago I was invited to a dinner at the US Embassy in Kabul. I was seated next to an Afghan-American official, and we were discussing corruption.

“How can we expect to make any progress when one of the most corrupt people in the country is the minister of counternarcotics?” I fumed.

Ahmed Zarar Moqbel, who had been interior minister until the graft and malfeasance in that organization proved too much for the international community to stomach, had recently been made drug czar. The British government, which had taken the lead on counternarcotics, cut off funding to the ministry upon his succession, apparently convinced that Moqbel himself was involved in drug smuggling.

Even in Afghanistan, he stands out.

The official looked at me, amused.

“Zarar is my relative,” he said.

I choked simultaneously on my food and my foot, and tried to stammer out an apology, but he just leaned toward me and laughed.

“Don’t worry, I agree with you,” he said. “I do not allow my family to see him.”

Moqbel has recently been named to head the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

In my experience, corruption in Afghanistan is everywhere, from the smallest office to the largest contractor. Examples range from the mildly irritating to the downright dangerous.

President Hamid Karzai insists the problem came with the foreigners. In an interview with author William Dalrymple, he shifted blame to his major benefactor.

“There is corruption, no doubt,” he said. “Our own petty corruption in the delivery of services was there before, is here today and will continue for some time. The big corruption was designed by the Americans. The contracts were used by the US government to buy influence in Afghanistan. It was designed to corrupt the Afghan political leadership so as to be usable by them.”

There may very well be some substance to Karzai’s accusations. After all, if the United States and its allies had not funneled nearly $700 billion dollars into Afghanistan over the past 12 years, it would not have been there to steal.

More GlobalPost analysis: Should we send more aid to Afghanistan?

Many in the international community also have a habit of looking the other way when it suits them.

Take the example of Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was widely believed to have been a major figure in the drug trade before he was assassinated in 2011.

Ahmed Wali enjoyed good relations with the US — in fact, he was a paid CIA informant.

But the bulk of the responsibility has to lie with the Afghans, who have seized opportunities with alacrity.

In one office where I worked, the office manager was an expert at procurement. He had