Rotten at the Core

What can we do about corruption in Afghanistan?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Click image to expand.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

It’s tempting to skip over the recent news stories about fighting corruption in Afghanistan. (“Of course there’s corruption,” you might have muttered while turning the page.) But resist the urge; go back and read them. They’re just as important as the stories about fighting the Taliban in Kandahar—maybe more so.

In a counterinsurgency war, such as the one we’re waging in Afghanistan, the legitimacy of the host government, in the eyes of its own people, is key to the prospects for success. And legitimacy is nearly unachievable if the government is blatantly corrupt.

The Obama administration is now debating what to do about the blatant corruption of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.

All the players recognize the connection between the war on corruption and the war against the Taliban—and the former’s crucial effect on the latter.

Last September, in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked why the Taliban were doing so well despite the U.S. military’s vastly larger forces. The problem, Mullen replied, is “clearly the lack of legitimacy of the [Afghan] government.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked, “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” Mullen replied, “That is correct.”

Around the same time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in a secret 66-page memo (which was leaked to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward) that the aim of a counterinsurgency strategy is to “provide for the needs of the population by, with, and through the Afghan government.” A “responsible and accountable government,” which the Afghan people “find acceptable,” was just as important as a secure environment. However, McChrystal went on, “widespread corruption by various officials … has given Afghans little reason to support the government,” a condition that sows “fertile ground for the insurgency.”

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, made the same point to Dexter Filkins of the New York Times: “If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

That was the subject of a Sept. 13 meeting between President Barack Obama and several high-ranking officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, the Justice Department, and the CIA: How to pressure Karzai to crack down on corruption and thus wipe away the perception that we’re “backing thugs.”

The problem is that Karzai and his cronies are, in many cases, at the center of the corruption. Earlier in the year, the reform drive seemed to be moving forward; the Obama administration was funding a massive anti-corruption program and training a cadre of Afghan investigators. Then, this summer, their wiretaps caught one of Karzai’s top aides, Mohammed Zia Salehi, soliciting bribes. He was arrested and thrown in jail—but then released under orders from Karzai.

The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Rod Nordland report in today’s paper that since that summer scandal, progress in several other corruption cases has screeched to a standstill.

Here’s the dilemma: Crack down on Karzai too hard, and he’ll scream, storm off, and issue threats under fear that his sovereignty is being threatened. But go too easy on Karzai, let him solve the problem in his own way at his own pace, and his regime will look even more unaccountable and illegitimate.

Another way to put it: Escalate tensions between Washington and Kabul, and risk alienating Karzai to the point that he doesn’t cooperate fully in the war against the Taliban. Or ease tensions, and let Karzai run his own affairs to the point that the Afghan people distrust him still further—and thus undermine the war against the Taliban.

Either way, things look bad.

Obama has directed his aides to develop guidelines that, as the Times reports, might “isolate the corruption that fuels anger among Afghans and drives many of them into the ranks of the insurgency, as opposed to the more routine kickbacks and bribes that grease the Afghan political system.” It’s a nice concept in theory, but, as the Times further notes, “Such distinctions could be difficult to draw.” The same officials, some of them very high up, are involved in both categories of corruption.

There was a time, around last year’s presidential election, when Obama officials, fed up with Karzai’s evasions and malfeasance, considered dropping him and throwing their support to an opposition candidate. The discussion intensified when a flood of evidence revealed that the election, which Karzai “won,” was fixed. U.S. emissaries convinced Karzai to hold a run-off election, but then the runner-up dropped out. At that point, we were stuck with Karzai; there was no alternative. This past May, Obama ordered his aides to stop their bickering on the issue and to start treating the Afghan president with respect; maybe that would spur him to action on corruption.

It did seem to spur him, but only for a while and only up to a point. So what to do now? Is there anything we can do? And if not, is counterinsurgency still a viable strategy for Afghanistan?

The answer depends, in part, on how long we’re planning to stay there in large numbers. John Nagl, who helped write the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency and is now president of the Center for a New American Security (a Washington think tank that some call Counterinsurgency Central), says we’re going to keep troops in Afghanistan “for a long time,” increasingly in an advisory role but still sizable and active enough to prod Karzai, gently but strategically, to do the right thing. Therefore, it’s worth sticking with the policy.

However, Andrew Exum, a former special-operations officer and now a scholar at Nagl’s think tank, wrote this week in his “Abu Muqawama” blog that, though anti-corruption efforts play a central role in counterinsurgency campaigns, “the reality is that we are trying to leave Afghanistan.” So “trying to target corruption in Afghanistan is, like counter-narcotics, the very definition of mission creep.” As an alternative, Exum proposed, “Let’s just train up the Afghan National Security Forces and transition to a security force assistance-type mission as soon as humanly possible … unless we plan on retaining a very strong presence in Afghanistan well past June 2011.”

July 2011, of course, is when President Obama has said he will begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He has recently stressed that the extent and pace of this withdrawal will be determined by “conditions on the ground.” But, though nobody has put it in these terms, those conditions should include the political conditions in Kabul as well as the strictly military conditions in, say, the villages and mountainous borderlands further south.

For now, Karzai seems to think that the United States has a bigger stake in the war’s success than he does and, therefore, that he’s the one with the leverage in this relationship. The Obama administration’s challenge is to convince Karzai that if he doesn’t clean up his act, he really will pay a price—we really might leave or, short of that, funnel arms, money, and other resources to provincial chiefs whose elevation would pose a challenge to Karzai’s authority. This is easier said than done, and carries its own risks for Afghanistan’s stability. But the alternative is to write “a blank check” and “blindly stay the course,” as Obama once said he wouldn’t do, and that way seems to lie a quagmire or worse.

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