Corruption--The Afghan Wild Card

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3522419464_bd7d52abc7.jpgAs the President and other senior administration leaders hunker down in a windowless basement room in the White House to begin debate on future U.S. policy in Afghanistan, one of the most vexing issues will be wide-spread Afghan corruption.

The profound problem, as articulated by the Administration's military and civilian leaders, can be simply stated. Corruption is a major cause of Afghan societal and governmental instability. Anticorruption efforts are critical to stability and legitimacy. Such governmental legitimacy is necessary to gain support of the divided, ethnically diverse people, and this support is a vital complement to military action against the Taliban. So, corruption must be swiftly and effectively addressed.

But-- and here it becomes vexatious-- how can this be done by a weak, corrupt government during a dangerous insurgency, especially after a contested election marked by serious fraud? And, if corruption is not effectively addressed in a short time frame, does this undermine -indeed checkmate--- the ultimate military mission as expressed by President Obama earlier this year to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban insurgency.

To understand the importance of the anticorruption effort in Afghanistan one need go no further than actually to read the recent report sent to the President by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Although the headline from the McChrystal report was his request for more troops, its deeper importance was his criticism of past U.S./NATO policy and his definition of the "problem."

Read his words on how central corruption is to his redefinition of the core issues which U.S. Afghan policy must address.

• "We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans--in both their government and the international community---that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents."

• "Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population."

• "...[A] properly resourced strategy must be built on four main pillars....2. Prioritize responsive and accountable government...assist in improving governance at all levels....that the Afghan people find acceptable...on par with, and integral to, delivering security."

• "Criminality creates a pool of manpower, resources and capabilities for insurgents and contributes to a pervasive sense of insecurity among the people. Extensive smuggling diverts major revenue from [the Afghan government]. Criminality exacerbates the fragmentation of Afghan society....A number of Afghan Government officials, at all levels, are reported to be complicit in these activities, further undermining [government] credibility.

• "The most significant aspect of the production and sale of opium and other narcotics is the corrosive and destabilizing impact on corruption with the [government]. Narcotics activity also funds insurgent groups...".

• "There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networks (including narcotics networks) and corrupt [government] officials. Malign actors within the [government] support insurgent groups directly, support criminal groups that are linked to insurgents and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency."

• "The narco- and illicit economy and the extortion associated with large scale developmental projects undermine the economy in Afghanistan. [The government] cannot funds its operations because of its inability to raise revenue, a situation made worse by the illicit economy."

McChrystal's assessment echoes analyses by many others. Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's opium and 30-50 percent of its economy is drug related. In 2005, Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index (built on its own surveys and on work by the World Bank, the Economist Intelligence Unit and others) ranked Afghanistan 117 out of 158 (with 158 the most corrupt) . By 2008, Afghanistan was 176th out of 180 on the Index. (Disclosure: I helped found Transparency International and am a member of TI-USA's board.)

A discussion draft on fighting corruption in Afghanistan prepared in 2007 by, among others, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime concluded after a review of governance indicators that "Afghanistan is fairly close to the bottom among countries in terms of the seriousness of the corruption problem."

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Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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