Politics & Policy

Corruption in Afghanistan

It's tempting to say fighting corruption is for police, not soldiers. Tempting, but wrong.

In his congratulatory phone call to Hamid Karzai, President Obama emphasized the importance of fighting corruption and noted that “the proof is not going to be in words; it’s going to be in deeds.” He would do well to heed his own advice.

Since the beginning of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. and coalition forces have never seen policing as a priority element of the counterinsurgency mission. Indeed, when asked about looting in 2003, a British military spokesman responded, “Do I look like I’m a policeman?” Around the same time, a U.S. Central Command official told reporters, “The U.S. won’t be a police force.”

Regarding Afghanistan, Douglas Feith proudly tells a story in his memoirs about a confrontation between Hamid Karzai and a provincial warlord named Pacha Khan in 2002. Karzai sought U.S. assistance, but Secretary Rumsfeld declined to give it. Feith concluded, “Karzai rose to the challenge from Pacha Khan. He managed in time to quiet the situation without major fighting, using political skill within his own means.” We may never know what Karzai and Pacha Khan actually discussed. Afghan sources have told me, however, that as the U.S. shifted forces to Iraq and seemed to lose interest in Afghanistan, Karzai did not have the resources to enforce the authority of his Kabul government, and had to make concessions to leading provincial personalities to maintain some hold on power. No wonder, then, that the country is now riddled with corruption.

A policing vacuum can make civil conflict worse. We have rightly focused on fighting insurgents and terrorists. Yet organized crime and government corruption are often tied to these primary threats, and they may do more to undermine the Iraqi and Afghan governments in the eyes of their own people than the insurgents and terrorists themselves.

When violence and chaos escalate, normal state and market activities are disrupted. Powerful players step into the void, profiting off conflict by providing access to all kinds of goods, from food and clothing to guns and drugs. As the violence abates, these actors solidify their newfound power. What some experts refer to as a “political-criminal nexus” develops. A host of corrupt and criminal activities pursued by powerful networks weaken state institutions.

When such alternative power centers develop, it takes forceful efforts to deconstruct them. These are efforts of a sort that a weak government, racked by war and lacking resources, may not be able to prosecute successfully. If U.S. and coalition forces refuse to support selected policing operations in Afghanistan, the state will never be able to break the cycle of corruption and criminality.

The U.S. military is slowly coming around to this realization. As Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior American military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently put it, “The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone.” Indeed, General Flynn is onto something. Ending the rule of complex organizations such as Capone’s required aggressive law-enforcement measures against the most powerful individuals in the organization. We have not yet undertaken such advanced policing operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Military forces usually operate by eliminating targets. Our military cannot kill corrupt Afghan officials, but it could do much more than it has been doing to help the Afghan government investigate, arrest, and prosecute them. In other words, it can give Afghan law-enforcement agencies the added strength that they need to make any headway against corruption and crime.

How Karzai would use this assistance is in question. But since he was willing to seek it previously, he may be willing to accept it now. The awkwardness of the recent elections and the substantial international pressure for change provide an opportunity. Karzai, however, having been left out in the cold before, may require convincing that U.S. assistance will be sustained and that a compelling plan for turning the tide toward properly functioning institutions is available. Both require immediate U.S. action.

So, when it comes to the U.S. concern about corruption, President Obama was right on target in saying “the proof is not going to be in words; it’s going to be in deeds.”

– Brock Dahl is a former U.S. Treasury Department official who worked in the Treasury attaché’s office in Baghdad and on the Afghanistan Interagency Operations Group. He is currently a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute and is pursuing a J.D. at the George Washington University Law School.

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