Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dubious Licence to Drive

Money matters more than road skills when it comes to getting a licence in Kabul
By Amanullah Nasrat

Lorry driver Ghulam Hazrat hasn't a clue where the traffic department is located in Kabul despite the fact that it recently issued him with a new driving licence.


"A friend of mine introduced me to a man to whom I gave my identity card, photos and 100 US dollars. Within three days, he brought me my licence," said Hazrat.


This is common practice in Afghanistan, he insists, and far preferable to going through official channels.


To get a licence legally, Hazrat would have had to take time off work, sit through a three-week obligatory course and then take an exam. If he failed, he would have to begin all over again. Like many, he found it cheaper and easier to hand over a bribe.


The three-week course, run by the traffic department, is free of charge and open to anyone over 18 who has completed a medical exam. It covers the rules of the road, but does not involve actual driving, since the assumption is that those attending can already drive.


Colonel Asadullah, who heads Kabul’s traffic directorate, is adamant that no licences have been issued to unqualified drivers since he took command of the department in August.


"Since my appointment, there has been nobody who has got a licence by paying a bribe or commission. If somebody got one before that, I am not aware of it," he told IWPR. A licence costs 10 dollars, he said, and is given only after a driver has passed both the written exam and the final road test.


“The time it takes to pass the examination is up to the driver," he said.


Asadullah told IWPR that his department is issuing approximately 300 licences per month. This number is down from last year, he said, most likely because of the new requirement that would-be drivers do the three-week course.


But given the surge in traffic accidents on Kabul’s streets, it would appear that many drivers are bypassing the process.


The traffic department's chief accident investigator, Fateh Mohammad, said that in the past six months there had been 472 traffic accidents in Kabul, of which 106 had resulted in death and 306 in injuries. This is up 10 per cent over last year, he said.


Mohammad placed much of the blame for the rise on the increased congestion on Kabul’s streets. He said that the roads were built for some 50,000 vehicles compared with the 300,000-plus in the capital today.


He also cited the fact that many of the cars in Kabul have their steering wheel on the right-hand side, although the traffic drives on the left side of the road.


Fateh denies that drivers are able to bribe their way into getting a licence, maintaining that the bogus documents are being forged in Pakistan.


"The licences from Pakistan have been printed so cleverly that only some of our expert traffic police can recognise them. Some people have been arrested because of this and their cases sent to the public prosecutor’s office," he said.


IWPR could find no drivers who admitted to receiving a fake licence in Pakistan. But here are plenty who claim to have paid a bribe to obtain their driving document.


Habib Rahman, who drives an eight-seater minibus, told IWPR that three months ago, he received a three-year licence from the traffic department by paying a bribe of 150 dollars. Since then, it had been checked many times by traffic police but he has not had any problems.


“Traffic officials take money for themselves, and give out licences for a commission,” he said.


The penalties for driving without a valid licence are relatively mild and do not seem to deter many. If a traffic officer has doubts about the validity of a licence, he can force the driver to take a test. If the driver fails, his licence is confiscated and he is are fined up to 400 afghani, about eight dollars.


Some drivers are put off applying for a license by the amount of bureaucracy it involves. Twenty-seven-year-old Ajmal finally got his licence one month ago, although he has been driving for the past four years. It took him a long time to get around to processing the paperwork, he said, because he was constantly being shunted from one office to another, told to come back, and sometimes asked for money.


"A licence costs only 10 dollars but if you add the ‘tea and sweets money’ [bribes] you pay to the traffic officials it reaches 60 to 70 dollars," he said.


Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.


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