Corruption is Afghanistan's biggest problem as foreign forces prepare to leave

(CBS News) KABUL - President Barack Obama held his first meeting with the new French president today at the White House, ahead of this weekend's G-8 summit.

Francois Hollande said he plans to pull 3,000 French combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year - two years ahead of schedule. Mr. Obama said the French have agreed to help with the NATO effort in other ways.

"We agreed that even as we transition out of combat phase in Afghanistan -- that it's important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development," Mr. Obama said a press conference.

The president wants America's partners to help pay for that. This weekend at the NATO summit in Chicago, he'll ask for more than $1 billion for Afghan security.

That will be a hard sell, in part because of dissatisfaction with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the corruption in his government. CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey traveled to Kabul to report on the situation.

From a traffic cop caught on surveillance video taking a bribe to government cronies accused of looting nearly a billion dollars from the country's biggest bank -- corruption is rife in Afghanistan.

It even has its own language. Traffic cops prod drivers for bribes by asking, "Is there a scorpion in your pocket?" A high-level official will ask for "long hairs," a reference to Benjamin Franklin's hair style.

"It starts from the street and goes to the palace, but it is not what Afghan people want," social activist Shafiq Hamdam told Pizzey.

Hadam formed a citizen's group called Afghan Anti-Corruption Network to expose what he says is Afghanistan's biggest challenge: corruption.

"Corruption feeds the unrest. Corruption feeds the insurgency," Hamdam said.

A recent Congressional report concluded that corruption undermines the effectiveness and legitimacy of Karzai's government.

"His government is the most corrupt government ever we have had in the country," Hamdam said.

One of the biggest problems is finding a secure way to pay salaries, including those of the Afghan security forces who will take over when American troops withdraw in 2014. Government officials have been skimming up to 30 percent off employee salaries, according to businessman Zahir Khoja. So a system was set up to bypass the officials by using cell phones to pay monthly wages.

"So if your salary was $100, you were receiving maybe $70 before, not to mention it was taking upward of 20 days to get to you," Khoja told CBS News.

Under the new system, a cell phone message is sent to employees telling them they've been paid. Khoja said a text message with a numbered code allows money to be collected with complete security.

The system should retrieve up to $60 million a year that had been lost to corruption. Huge as that may sound, however, it barely dents the problem that has to be solved to help ensure stability when U.S. forces pull out.

  • Allen Pizzey

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