Murphy's Law: The Art Of Scam In Afghanistan

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August 6, 2013: Corruption in Afghanistan can be astonishing at times. That’s because Afghans consider stealing from foreigners to be a laudable goal and this is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. An excellent example of this can be seen by a recent effort by some Afghan customs officials to scam the U.S. government out of over $70 million. This was basically an organized extortion effort carried out by customs officials. It first appeared in June, when American equipment (vehicles and cargo containers) leaving the country were halted at the Afghan border by demands for a document proving the equipment had entered Afghanistan. If this document was not available (and it never was), payment of a $1,000 fine (per violation) would allow the item to pass. This in itself was absurd because a 2002 agreement between Afghanistan and the United States exempted American military equipment from anything of this nature. Senior customs officials replied that the 2002 agreement was unfair and no longer applied. At this point the situation was becoming surreal and negotiations continued as U.S. officials climbed the Afghan government chain of command, finding that the original scammers had, as is usually the case, promised all their superiors a piece of the action and all were doing their best to make the extortion plan work. Finally the U.S. agreed, but with the understanding that these fines could be paid but that the amount would be deducted from foreign aid, plus large processing fees and fines. Sensing the game was up, the scam collapsed.

Many of these scams succeed, again and again. One of the best examples of this is the “dead goat scam” in which villagers lie about who was killed by a NATO bomb in order to obtain more compensation money, and to avoid Taliban retribution. This one is quite common and works like this. Often, when a smart bomb gets dropped in an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan), and there is any chance of civilian casualties the locals will often make a fuss about seeking to find who was hurt or killed. The village elders insist that outsiders (as in U.S. military personnel investigating the damage) stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are put off (after a quick search for Taliban bodies, documents, and equipment is completed). Being good Moslems, the villagers bury the dead before sunset of the same day. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead, killed by smart bombs, as they think they can get away with. Sometimes additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders also know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday, but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future. The villages encourage this by offering the local Taliban a cut of the compensation money.

This scam works because there aren't many public records in Afghanistan. The only ones who know exactly who lives in a village are the people there and the elders speak for everyone. Investigators have a hard time interrogating individuals because the elders, and everyone there, has a vested interest in not being found out. Sometimes the elders get greedy. For example, despite an intensive investigation into a 2008 bombing in Azizabad (outside Heart), the villagers got paid for over 90 dead. Investigators, piecing together what information they could, were certain that there were only 15 dead civilians (plus Taliban). But you can't touch the graves, and even questioning the veracity of the claims gets you howls of indignation.

 

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