How Corruption Eats Away At The Counterinsurgency Effort In Afghanistan

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

ap090304045967.jpgThe most intractable enemy the United States faces in Afghanistan isn’t the Taliban — it’s the corruption apparently endemic to all levels of the Afghan government. As the New York Times reported yesterday, President Obama’s plan to send 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to train Afghan security forces is endangered by corruption that threatens the entire international enterprise in Central Asia.

As reporter Richard Oppel, Jr. wrote, “better policing may be impossible for Afghanistan unless government officials at all levels stop cannibalizing their civil administration and police force for a quick profit.” Corruption eats away at the counterinsurgency effort as it erodes the legitimacy of all levels of government. The system of corruption perpetuates itself, as mid-level politicians and security officers look to recoup the $50,000 they shell out in bribes to obtain their positions by demanding bribes for their own services. In all, it creates a security and justice system that is unfair, uncertain, and unjust.

As the departing police chief in Ghazni province told Oppel, “this is the reason no one accepts the rule of law, because the government is not going by the rule of law.” If the U.S.-backed government can’t obey its own rules in the face of individual avarice, ordinary Afghans will understandably wonder why they should stick up for the Kabul government in the face of Taliban intimidation. First Sgt. John Strain, the senior NCO of the police training team in Ghazni, put the state of affairs stark perspective: “The corruption here is a bigger threat to a stable government than the Taliban.”

The Taliban take advantage of this situation all too easily. In contrast to corrupt government officials, the Taliban offer their own swift and brutal version of justice. Combined with a vicious campaign of intimidation that involved hacking off the limbs of three men who helped the government and setting them on fire, the Taliban’s kangaroo courts have enabled only 50 fighters to control a population of 93,000 in one of Ghazni’s districts. The total problem is so bad that veteran soldiers like First Sgt. Strain conclude that “it’ll probably only take two or three years after we are gone until it reverts to the way it was right before we got here… To have to admit that when you look at these [Afghan] kids, it really breaks your heart, to think that what you’re doing is probably not going to turn out to be a hill of beans.”

The depressing picture painted in the Times illustrates the fundamental dilemma the United States faces in Afghanistan: that success is more dependent on the quality and performance of its allies in Afghanistan than it is on what the United States does. To be sure, the U.S. military and our international allies can buy time and create spaces of security for a less corrupt and more effective Afghan government to deliver services and public goods like justice to the Afghan people. Ultimately, though, it is on the question of whether an effective, legitimate Afghan government that respects the rule of law — not the level or nature of the U.S. military commitment — that will decide whether the United States will achieve its goal of a stable Afghanistan with a representative government.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Obama administration has taken a cautious approach to Afghanistan thus far. It has recognized that an integrated state-building effort in Afghanistan is necessary for success, and that a surge of civilians will be as critical an increase in military forces. Right now, the administration appears to be temporizing – sending more military forces to stabilize the situation prior to Afghanistan’s August presidential elections, while waiting to see whether President Karzai or his successor can get Afghanistan’s act together and clean up corruption before committing more resources.

Here at the Center, we’ll be hosting the Special Inspectors General for Iraq and Afghanistan Reconstruction – Stuart Bowen and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Arnold Fields – next Monday in an effort to determine what lessons from the Iraq assistance experience can be applied to current efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How we can avoid waste, fraud, and abuse of U.S. resources is a critical question as our national effort ramps up in both countries. If you’re in DC, you should come and check the event out – SIGIR’s reports on Iraq reconstruction have been among the most valuable on Iraq policy.