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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.

scoped out all the best suppliers in Kabul, and had a list of places to go. Very efficient, I thought, until I went to one of his favorite shops to buy a circuit breaker.

When I mentioned the name of my office, the store manager smiled understandingly.

“Ah, yes, this is what you want.” He fetched a raggedy-looking piece of equipment from in back. “It is reconditioned. Costs just a third of what a new one would. But don’t worry — we’ll give you a receipt for the full cost. We have an arrangement with your chief.”

A quick count of circuit breakers in the office ran to several dozen — the office manager was making $100 or so on each one. He also had a habit of hiring his relatives for minor jobs — guards, drivers. He would pay them a small fee and pocket the bulk of their pay.

Our resourceful manager was doubling or tripling his salary.

After I left, one of my former colleagues left behind sent me a message, typos and all:

“Im so sad of that situation witch is going on in our office in Kabul… corruption is in high level, making of corrupt invoices … hiring of relatives in office etc. ... I want to send some documents to head office.”

But the head office was not interested. Exposing corruption is bad for business.

Our office was not a rich one; just imagine the scams the big boys must have thought up.

When I worked in Helmand, we liaised with a local official in Lashkar Gah, the capital. For the roughly two years of our stay we had to pay him a monthly “facilitation fee” not to make trouble for us.

While there, I lived in the governor’s guesthouse overlooking the river. It was lovely, except for the fact that the Taliban were across the water and occasionally fired automatic weapons in our direction. By the end of my sojourn the window was sandbagged to keep out stray bullets.

Helmand is a dodgy province: bombings, kidnappings, outright battles were common. Security seemed tight around the governor’s compound, except that one of our acquaintances, let’s call him Araf, would slip the guards a tab of hash to let him in without searching his car.

Araf, I should explain, was collaborating with the Taliban. He and his brothers used to make trips to the Iranian border to swap drugs for guns, which they would hand over to the insurgents. His father was arrested and incarcerated for his sons’ crimes, and Araf was desperately looking for money to buy him out of jail.

We stopped going to Helmand shortly after that, partly out of fear that our faithful “friend” would sell us to the Taliban to get the necessary funds.

Afghanistan is a world of fun-house mirrors.

One journalist I knew was insistent on bringing down a lawmaker from his home district, which bordered Tajikistan. The official, he claimed, was smuggling drugs.

An obliging governor from a poppy-growing province had made a helicopter available to get the parliamentarian home; since it was a government vehicle it was not searched. On every trip home the chopper was loaded with heroin or opium; the lawmaker’s brothers would then take the drugs and smuggle them across the border.

More GlobalPost analysis: The rise to a narco state

Ahmed (not his real name) brought me the helicopter pilot, who confirmed the story.

“But how do you know about the drug trafficking through Tajikistan?” I asked.

Ahmed laughed.

“Because my brothers are in business with them!” he said.

The story went untold, although it is common knowledge among many Afghans.

The ultimate in corruption was the presidential election of 2009.

Vote rigging was rampant, and far from subtle. Any election worker could produce sheaves of ballots all marked with the same distinctive squiggle — hastily filled out by the same hand.

According to one United Nations election monitor, there were at least 1,500 “ghost” polling stations — meaning that the hundreds of thousands of mostly Karzai votes they sent to Kabul were fraudulent.

The international community hailed the elections as a success, anointed Karzai as the legitimate winner, and, for good measure, fired the pesky official who tried to expose the fraud.

Afghan malfeasance reinforced by international complicity — come to think of it, maybe Karzai’s got a point.

Journalist Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011.