When it comes to governing this violent, fractious land, everything, it seems, has its price.
Want to be a provincial police chief? It will cost you $100,000.
Want to drive a convoy of trucks loaded with fuel across the country? Be prepared to pay $6,000 per truck, so the police will not tip off the Taliban.
Need to settle a lawsuit over the ownership of your house? About $25,000, depending on the judge.
"It is very shameful, but probably I will pay the bribe," Mohammed Naim, a young English teacher, said as he stood in front of the Secondary Courthouse in Kabul. His brother had been arrested a week before, and the police were demanding $4,000 for his release. "Everything is possible in this country now. Everything."
Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.
A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, including the president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country's opium trade, now the world's largest. In the streets and government offices, hardly a public transaction seems to unfold here that does not carry with it the requirement of a bribe, a gift, or, in case you are a beggar, "harchee" - whatever you have in your pocket.
The corruption, publicly acknowledged by Karzai, is contributing to the collapse of public confidence in his government and to the resurgence of the Taliban, whose fighters have moved to the outskirts of Kabul, the capital.
"All the politicians in this country have acquired everything - money, lots of money," Karzai said in a speech at a rural development conference here in November. "God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen."
The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency - committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so - but also from itself.
"This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over," said Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. "The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated."