TV hit blasts Kabul bumblers


If, near a decade after 9/11, you’ve been wondering about the billions taxpayers have spent to build a shiny new Afghanistan, spend a few minutes YouTubing the trailer for The Ministry, a TV comic hit that’s sweeping Kabul. Among the first few results, it’s an excoriating little piece of theatre in the Afghan badlands.

Many a true word is expressed in jest, and so it is for The Ministry, backed by former Brighton High old boy Saad Mohseni, now a budding media magnate in Kabul after he returned there in 2002 after an Australian career in banking and stockbroking.

Mohseni has made an Afghan hybrid of The Office and Yes Minister that documents the bumblers of the so-called ”Ministry of Garbage” in the not-so-fictional nation of Hechland, which translates as ”Nothingland” in Afghanistan’s native Dari.

It doesn’t take a big leap to see who the program is really skewering. Mohseni’s Ministry takes aim at the rampant corruption, the nepotism, the incompetence and pomposity of Afghanistan’s so-called administrators who, no laughing matter this, have managed to waste the best part of $50 billion since the Western powers, including Australia, installed the Hamid Karzai government in 2001 while New York still smouldered.

There’s not a great deal to show for a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan. Power supply is intermittent at best, as are public sanitation and water. Unemployment is officially measured at about 40 per cent and that is regarded as generous. The Taliban are near as rife as they ever were – witness the recent assassinations of the Western-friendly governor and mayor of Kandahar.

As for the economy, there isn’t really one of conventional recognition. Big city trading bazaars seem busy but only with low-level commerce – selling Chinese-made trinkets and fabrics, bread, vegetables and kebabs. Various contracts have been signed with state-controlled Chinese firms to extract resources from the country’s relatively placid north but security remains a huge impediment – this before determining how to safely import plant and export yields, a problem that doesn’t seem to hamper the poppy drugs trade, as thriving as it ever was.

Afghans survive via a combination of Western aid, diaspora remittances and trickle-down from widespread illegal poppy cultivation. The biggest conventional success stories have been the growth of telecoms and, perhaps, the media. Kabul is awash with newspapers, and Mohseni’s market-leading Moby Group daily breaks ground with its popular Arman radio network and Tolo TV, which is screening The Ministry.

Afghan nabobs proudly point to the growth of the finance sector, but that was before the recent implosion of the country’s biggest bank, KabulBank, in a $1 billion corruption scandal that snared relatives of President Karzai. When the popular history of Afghanistan is written, this sorry episode will probably pale against the brutal backdrop of the Afghan drama; of 9/11 and the thousands of lives lost – 27 of them Australian – avenging it.

But that would be a mistake. This was the one shining effort to build the basis of a sustainable economy in Afghanistan to reach beyond the increasingly pressing day when foreign boots depart Afghan soil and the locals would stand prosperously on their own.

Run by one of the world’s better-known poker players, KabulBank got the government contract to facilitate the paying of salaries of Afghanistan’s neo-Soviet bureaucrats, rather like those Mohseni depicts in The Ministry.

But that was like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse. KabulBank, whose most popular retail product was a lottery, was in truth a lethal combination of gigantic Ponzi scheme and unsupervised slush fund for its owners. The central bank governor who supposedly supervised and investigated it has fled to the United States, claiming his life is in danger. The wreckage he left is now being sorted out by his predecessor, who reportedly was also on the take.

Some half-hearted criminal charges have been levelled at the directors and major shareholders with their hands in the till, but no one in Kabul realistically expects anyone will pay for its collapse. The biggest losers are average Afghans who trusted their meagre savings with the whisky-swilling gambler chairman, Sherkhan Farnoord, an old friend of the Karzais.

All of which makes The Ministry land a satirical bullseye on the inefficient rottenness of the Western-sponsored Kabul government.

It is shot in fly-on-the-wall mockumentary style and its characters are anyone who spends time negotiating official Afghanistan. There’s the doughy minister with the politically correct beard, both jolly and sinister. His veiled female secretary is the minister’s most efficient staffer, but also the least appreciated. At one point she reels off a list of demands from MPs in this new democracy; one member needs a huge security entourage while another needs a ministerial rubber stamp approving well-paid jobs for his extended family. Still another wants the minister to authorise a company that turns out to be a drug-trafficking business.

As to the serious matters of state, one senior aide seems to spend much of his working day at the office in sunglasses and a too-sharp suit, combing his hair.

The Ministry also nods at Western concerns that its billions in aid are being wasted, as two civil servants grapple over who is authorised to use a stapler. As for security, in a nation that’s seen too many assassinations, the minister is protected by a snoozing septuagenarian, a ”highly decorated member of a tactical response unit”.

Wryly observes The Ministry’s Australian-Afghan backer Mohseni: ”It is not far from the truth.”