For more than a decade, Afghanistan was continuously ranked among the 10 most corrupt governments. But this year, the country has left its disreputable position, and the Taliban claim credit for it.
On Tuesday, Transparency International, a Berlin-based nongovernment corruption watchdog, released its latest annual corruption perception index, ranking Denmark as the least corrupt state in the world and Somalia 180th as the most corrupt.
Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is ranked 150th, a remarkable status upgrade from its 174th ranking in 2021. In 2011, at the height of U.S. military and developmental engagement in Afghanistan, the country was ranked 180th, next to North Korea and Somalia.
The improved ranking is surprising for a regime that has been widely condemned as deeply authoritarian and misogynistic because of its mistreatment of women and the press. But it does not give full credit to the Taliban for tackling Afghanistan's chronic corruption ills.
"Although there are multiple anecdotes of the demand for bribes being reduced and the Taliban consolidating their revenue collection, we do not have enough verified evidence of a systemic reduction in corruption in the country," Samantha Nurick, Transparency International's communication manager, told VOA.
"The score change is not statistically significant and should not be interpreted as an improvement of the situation on the ground," she said, adding that gathering reliable information from inside Afghanistan was extremely challenging.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban have reportedly reduced bribery and extortion at least in some public services.
"The Taliban have demonstrated the ability to greatly reduce corruption in Customs and at road checkpoints," William Byrd, a senior researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA.
Tackling corruption has provided financial lifelines for an isolated Taliban regime that faces crippling international economic and banking sanctions.
Last week, the World Bank released an upbeat assessment of the Taliban-run Afghan economy, saying exports were high, currency exchange was stable and revenue collection was strong in the first three quarters of 2022.
The Taliban say revenues from their robust tax collections reached $1.7 billion in the last 10 months, but they have not explained how and where they spend the meager national resources.
Shutting secondary schools and universities for girls and women, the Taliban have opened and financed thousands of new religious seminaries across Afghanistan only for boys and young men.
Last year, the Taliban's acting defense minister said the regime was planning to build a 110,000-strong army.
For two decades, the Taliban fought the former U.S.-backed Afghan government, calling it inherently corrupt and inefficient.
The United States spent $146 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, including the country's anti-corruption agencies, before the Taliban returned to power, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government entity that has investigated, reported and prosecuted numerous corruption cases involving Afghan and American contractors.
"The United States failed to recognize the magnitude of corruption early on, empowered warlords and other corrupt actors and poured too much money into the country at a rate that it could not be absorbed," Shelby Cusick, a SIGAR spokesperson, told VOA in written replies.
Endemic corruption diminished public support for the former Afghan government, weakened its position in peace talks with the Taliban and culminated in its ignominious fall in August 2021.
Western donors have stopped development assistance to Afghanistan but have continued giving humanitarian aid to needy Afghans while bypassing Taliban institutions.
While corruption still permeates different layers of the public sector in Afghanistan and most citizens resort to bribery to receive basic services such as getting a passport, senior Taliban leaders show a will in tackling corruption.
"Taliban's current supreme leader - and those close to him - are more predisposed to emphasize on combating corruption, both moral and material, as he rarely dwells on worldly pleasures," said Malaiz Daud, a research fellow at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs.
"The movement, undoubtedly though, has a serious corruption problem at the very highest level," he said.
The Taliban have called bribery in the public sector a criminal act, but other forms of corruption such as diversion of public funds, nepotistic appointments in public positions, access to information on government activities and the abuse of official powers remain prevalent across the country.