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Western Attitudes Toward Afghan Corruption

Dexter Filkins has an excellent piece in the NYT on changing attitudes toward corruption in the Karzai government, but I think this characterization of the CIA’s role doesn’t fully capture what’s been going on:

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build.

The Central Intelligence Agency has carried that line of argument even further, putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government. The explanation, offered by agency officials, is that Mother Theresa can’t be found in Afghanistan.

I think a more generous view of the pro-corruption position would be this. From 2002–2008, the war in Afghanistan was an “economy of force” mission. People were given a certain level of resources and told to do the best they could. And improving governance in poorly governed societies is difficult to do. So the calculation was made that given limited resources, simply taking advantage of Afghan officials’ proclivity for corruption by bribing them seemed like a cost-effective alternative to a more ambitious undertaking with higher costs and an uncertain outcome. The problem, as detailed by Filkins, is that this attitude has only exacerbated the underlying governance problems.

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