Today the New York Times ran a detailed story entitled, “Intractable Afghan Graft Hampering U.S. Strategy.” The Wall Street Journal ran a much more disturbing story entitled, “Afghan Air Force Probed in Drug Running.”
Unfortunately, those two stories corroborate what I have been repeatedly told. After spending a year directing a competent staff charged with rooting out high-level corruption, a senior Western official said to me, “The criminal underworld is connected to the political upper-world. The ministries in Kabul are battlegrounds for competing factions. Every criminal network has a constituency and claims to support an aggrieved portion of the population.”
On one level, the Afghan situation seems similar to Russia, where the wealth was distributed among an oligopoly controlled and safeguarded by the Putin apparatus. Afghanistan is dissimilar, however, in that, unlike the Putin clique, the Karzai clique lacks a strong and loyal bureaucratic and security structure to secure civil order.
In 2014, Karzai leaves office. The new president then appoints his preferred slate of ministerial, provincial, district, and police officials. Will the existing oligopoly keep power by cutting enough deals to share the diminishing resources provided by a withdrawing Western coalition? Or will the current Karzai patronage system be thrown out wholesale, to be replaced by a new favored clique — resentful of the old order and desperate to acquire wealth before the West leaves altogether?
Systemic corruption without incentives that bind the state’s security apparatus to the preservation of the ruling oligopoly will inevitably undermine national cohesion and control by the central government. Afghans did not participate in the “Arab spring” a year ago. Such an upheaval in Kabul cannot be ruled out in 2014.
— Bing West’s latest book is The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan.