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September 17, 2010 / jeni

Clueless on Corruption in Afghanistan

The list of things we are still uncertain of, nearly nine years into the Afghan campaign, is depressingly long. What’s happened to bin Laden? Should we talk to the Taliban? What’s the best way to disrupt the drugs trade? And so on. So it is not all that surprising that there is no consistent and coherent strategy with respect to corruption in Afghanistan — or even, for that matter, consensus on how serious a problem it really is.

Two items related to this issue caught my eye this week. First, on Sunday, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Washington Post on the evolving view within American policy circles that a law enforcement approach to Afghan corruption is proving counterproductive. The new Afghan anti-corruption task force is seen as an American endeavour with an Afghan facade. High-profile raids have angered and embarrassed President Karzai (who, when one of his aides was arrested, simply ordered him released). A lack of transparency and coordination means that law enforcement agencies are targeting individuals on the CIA payroll or who are otherwise engaged in assisting coalition efforts.

In short, while there is general agreement on the need to uncover corruption networks and better understand the effects of corruption in Afghanistan, there is a growing divide over how such information should be acted upon. The problem with a law enforcement approach is that, if properly implemented, it is apolitical — lawbreakers are prosecuted regardless of their status or wealth. However, in a counterinsurgency or stabilisation environment, everything is political. Arresting and prosecuting corrupt officials may be highly satisfying to American observers, but if it alienates political allies, disrupts intel efforts, and is not seen as legitimate by local populations, then it may not be worth it. It appears General Petraeus is going to assert more control over anti-corruption efforts, and has even brought in H.R. McMaster to head up a new anti-corruption task force.

The problem with moving away from a law enforcement approach is the lack of a coherent alternative strategy. Alternative tactics — sure. Better inter-agency communication can avert the targeting of allies and informants, and there are lessons to be drawn from Iraq, where corruption has been addressed privately at the highest levels so as not to embarrass or disempower Prime Minister Maliki. But these are essentially tools to mitigate the political effects of corruption — they are unlikely to do anything to halt corruption itself, which is now so massively embedded in political and economic systems that it constitutes a strategic problem in Afghanistan.

Scaling back law enforcement efforts and resorting to informal methods also undercut efforts to promote the rule of law in Afghanistan — and yes, the rule of law may seem like a pipe dream at the moment, but it is precisely in the area of law and justice that the Taliban have found a measure of popular support in rural areas, by providing mechanisms for fair and swift judgment that the government cannot.

Finally, are we or are we not serious about lending some kind of legitimacy to the Karzai government? This is, in theory, a central aim of Coalition efforts and counterinsurgency strategy. Yet in speaking with Afghans over the past couple years, I have been struck by a common theme in their assessments of the current situation — namely, that everyone is a thief. The government steals, the police steal, the foreign armies steal, the NGOs and aid agencies steal — how else to explain a situation where billions of dollars have been dropped on the country and yet the average Afghan is no better off? Failing to prosecute government officials who are commonly known to be shipping shedloads of cash to the Emirates may be politically expedient, but no government can attain legitimacy under such circumstances.

Nevertheless, the problems with the law enforcement approach are obvious, and I am not trying to suggest unwavering adherence to it. But I worry that in trying on alternative practices, we may lose sight of the bigger strategic issues related to corruption in Afghanistan.

Which leads me to the other interesting item of the week, posted a few days ago by Abu Muqawama (otherwise known as Andrew Exum, a fellow War Studies doctoral candidate with a much better day job). On Corruption neatly counterposes those who think corruption is really the central issue in Afghanistan (a position I admit I mostly sympathise with) with those who believe addressing it in any substantial manner would be a classic example of mission creep.

But as I spent more time in Afghanistan last summer and talked to more people back in Washington, I starting wondering whether or not the United States had the time or committment necessary in Afghanistan to really tackle the issue properly. If Afghanistan was going to be our 51st state, then it makes sense to send Patrick Fitzgerald or whoever over to Kabul and let him do his thing. But the reality is that we are trying to leave Afghanistan. So the other school of thought on corruption argues that trying to target corruption in Afghanistan is, like counter-narcotics, the very definition of mission creep. Let’s just train up the Afghan National Security Forces and transition to a security force assistance-type mission as soon as is humanly possible.

Actually, if we are not going to do much of anything about corruption in our remaining time in the country, then we might as well leave right now. If we’re not going to target the massive infrastructure of graft and extortion within which the ANSF are embedded, then I’m not sure the Afghan people will actually appreciate us giving the security forces more training and guns with which to abuse and exploit them. And even if we scale back our overriding aims to not letting Afghanistan become a terrorist refuge again, do we really believe that a massively corrupt government — a government that essentially subsists on bribery, theft and the trafficking of illicit goods — that this kind of government would not turn a blind eye to an Al Qaeda presence for the right amount of cash?

To be fair, Exum acknowledges that ‘corruption might eventually undermine the very host nation government by, with and through which we plan on keeping al-Qaeda and its allies at bay’. But I don’t find his recommended means of addressing the problem — establishing a ‘relationship of trust’ with Karzai — especially convincing. For one thing, if we don’t have a relationship of trust with Karzai after nine years, I think we can say that ship has sailed. More important, Karzai is one man, with a questionable political lifespan. He cannot be the solution to this problem.

I agree with Exum — and the sceptics from the Post article — that as we are not planning a long-term presence, realistically there is not a lot we can do about entrenched corruption in Afghanistan. I suppose all I am asking for in the meantime is some effort to A) not make things worse, and B) at least try for some level of consistency in our aims and strategies. We can strive for better accountability in our own money flows and contracting. We can try to obtain as much intelligence on corruption networks as possible while we are still in a position to observe. Disrupting the production and trade of narcotics and promoting alternative livelihoods has been a contested process for years, but the potential payoffs are great. We can go after the assets that corrupt officials move through the global financial system.

Our options may be few, but pretending that corruption is not obstructing our strategic aims, and dealing with it only informally and covertly, is not going to burnish our credibility or enhance our limited chances of success.

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