The Afghan National Police: A study on corruption and clientelism By: Danny Singh | Afghanistan | Nov 3, 2015

This blog identifies the underlying conditions of the Afghan state from the outset of the late 2001 Bonn political arrangement that has resulted in deep-rooted corrupt clientelistic networks within the Afghan government. This has trickled to the majority of the ministries including the Interior Ministry. Corruption is systemic and hard to combat despite police reform. This is due to the nature of four interrelated explanations of corruption that are subsequently covered. These consist of (1) the structural causes of corruption, patronage and nepotism, (2) low pay, (3) state capture, and (4) ethnic favouritism.


CCSD_11_05_cover.qxpThis article is the eleventh contribution in our new Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Danny Singh (2014) Corruption and clientelism in the lower levels of the Afghan police, Conflict, Security & Development, 14:5, 621-650.

As part of the partnership between the Conflict, Security & Development Journal and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article will be available for three months free and open access exclusively through this link:


(Note: The empirically-based analysis of this research consists of 70 semi-structured interviews conducted with elites in Kabul during May – June 2010 and 100 surveys with patrol officers and first and second lieutenants in Kabul and neighboring provinces during January –March 2012. The empirical analysis finds that care needs to be considered when attempting to challenge one form of corruption that may unintentionally exacerbate another. This study shows that when posting lowly paid patrolmen and lieutenants in distant provinces to combat patronage, this can intensify petty forms of corruption as a means of economic necessity. This is particularly evident if there is only one breadwinner per household.) 

The state of corruption in post-2001 Afghanistan

After the extensive efforts to overthrow the Taliban, the Bonn Agreement on 5 December 2001 brought about a new political and peace arrangement in Afghanistan. The Taliban and those groups sympathetic to Pakistan were excluded; the Pashtuns – majority ethnic group – were left disenfranchised; whereas the powerful Tajik staple – Northern Alliance warlords – were supported.

Such powerful figures, including warlords responsible for mass human rights abuses, reaped state and economic resources which were redistributed to those loyal to them and those with nepotistic and qawm ties. It can be argued that the rushed liberal peace ideals formulated within the Bonn Agreement created an opportunity for the interim President Hamid Karzai and ruthless Northern Alliance warlords to enjoy and further develop corrupt clientelistic networks. This has also generated factional fragmentation and challenged efforts of meritocracy. For instance, 86 police generals and 14 police chiefs – some were engaged in previous human rights abuses – failed their entry examinations but still entered their positions due to direct links with the former Afghan President. Moreover, at least 60 per cent of Afghan parliamentarians have been engaged in previous human rights violations and/or corruption but retain their posts due to the 2007 Amnesty Blanket Immunity Law that has pardoned such abuses and is yet to be revoked. Hence, state capture is evident in Afghanistan and many criminal networks linked to the opium trade are protected by parliamentarians that profit from illicit drug smuggling. Furthermore, corruption is systemic and rife within the Afghan civil service and both police and judicial sectors that extort bribes for daily routines. This affects the poor sternly. The poor are forced to pay a higher slice of their income for basic services that should be free of cost. As a result of these underlying conditions of the Afghan state, this paper identifies the structural causes of corruption, patronage and nepotism; low pay resulting in petty corruption as a means of economic necessity; state capture; and ethnic favouritism.

Afghan police, patrolmen and everyday corruption 

Taking the aforementioned conditions of the Afghan state into consideration, this paper examines corruption and clientelism within the lower levels of the Afghan police. The Afghan police consists of approximately 160,000 police officers and the majority are patrolmen. The main categories within the Afghan police consist of the Afghan Uniform Police (patrolmen fall under this division), Afghan Border Police, Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan, Afghan National Civil Order and the Afghan Local Police (the latter comes under the Afghan National Police). These divisions are to deal with everyday police duties, border patrolling and fighting narcotics trafficking and to provide local security in remote areas.

The purpose of the journal article I recently published is to provide a study on the causes of police corruption in Afghanistan. This is based on 70 interviews conducted in the field with elites that include senior members of the Afghan Interior Ministry, other Afghan ministries, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and advocacy groups. More centrally, the research draws on 100 surveys that were conducted in early 2012 with mostly patrolmen and also first and second lieutenants in Kabul and nearby Afghan provinces. The surveys investigate these determinants of corruption: family size, type of accommodation, the number of breadwinners, monthly living costs, expenses and salary per month, how the police officer was recruited and whether the officer is working in their home province or not. These variables have an impact on economic necessity, petty forms of corruption, patronage and nepotism.

The police reform pillar – mostly part of externally-led security sector reform efforts (SSR) – has received extensive donor funding, initially from Germany and subsequently the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL), the United Nations Development Programme’s Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan and the US. Germany and EUPOL focused on training the Afghan police under the democratic rule of law and human rights whereas the later intervention of US-led Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan focused on fighting the insurgency which overlapped with the Afghan armed forces. Alongside, the confusion of Afghan policing duties, there are additional problems. Many Afghan police officers are semi-literate or illiterate and even after pay and rank reform, the senior levels have been downsized and patrolmen increased but the pay for patrolmen was only raised to 70$ (USD) per month and later $120 per month. This has exacerbated petty forms of corruption, particularly within the lower ranks of the AUP, as a means of economic survival.

The main empirical contribution of this paper identifies the main components of corruption and clientelism that affect the Afghan police sector. The survey finds that low pay is an issue for patrolmen. This is particularly the case for sole breadwinners working in distant provinces that cater for an average of 11.5 family members. The lottery/rotation strategy was endorsed to combat patronage and police officers retaining loyalty to local commanders rather than the state. However, this can be counterproductive and can inadvertently exacerbate survival-based corruption such as bribery and roadside extortion.

Pay reform is a starting point to combat petty corruption in the Afghan police but the structural forms of corruption and state capture will still remain. It is corruption at the senior levels of the Afghan Interior Ministry that has resulted in the institution being perceived as a shop that sells jobs. Police chiefs bid for jobs that can reach up to 100,000$ (USD) for positions in high poppy cultivating districts for six month appointments with a $60 per month clean income. Moreover, the police are also engaged in daily bribery, roadside extortion, and charge protection money from vendors selling produce. The Afghan police is one of the most hated institutions in Afghanistan and such civil society perceptions has driven the public to informal modes of security which includes the Taliban.

Corruption, legitimacy and the challenges of security sector reform in Afghanistan

The lack of legitimacy of the Afghan state, judicial sector and the police largely due to corruption during the SSR phase from 2002-2006 had led to Taliban resurgence in the south of Afghanistan to fill the security and judicial vacuum in the countryside. The Taliban have formed a Code of Conduct in 2006 that strives to end police corruption. It is crucial that when attempting to combat corruption and clientelism potential repercussions are recognised. The lottery/rotation strategy with the lower levels of the Afghan police has aimed to combat patron-client loyalty with local commanders rather than the state. However, the lowly paid patrolmen placed in distant provinces, particularly if they are sole breadwinners, are likely to engage in petty forms of corruption to supplement low pay to cover for living costs and familial expenses. Anti-corruption strategy needs to be better planned. With international intervention coming to a close, it is vital that the new Afghan President – Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – reinstates faith in the state and the police sector by truly fighting corruption in order to help the statebuilding process and circumvent further Taliban resurgence.

Danny Singh is a Researcher at Leeds Beckett University. His research interests focus on corruption, clientelism, SSR and human rights in war-torn states, focusing on Afghanistan where he has conducted extensive field research. He has recently published on police and judicial reform in Conflict, Security & Development and Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding respectively and will publish in early 2016 an article in a special issue on corruption of the Journal of Developing Studies on alternative approaches to anti-corruption strategies in Afghanistan.


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