Is Corruption the Toughest Front in Afghanistan War?

Experts say we have to confront Kabul before Taliban or Al Qaeda

This article is from the archive of our partner .

President Obama's war in Afghanistan has many pressing fronts--the Taliban insurgency, Al Qaeda terrorists, a divided Pakistan--but leading experts now say the highest priority should be fighting corruption in Afghan civil society. From President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul to the police to the military, they argue that no progress can come until Afghans have a reliable government. How can Obama lead us against an enemy who is also our ally?

  • Corruption at 'Every Level' Undermines Legitimacy  Steve Coll argues that addressing corruption must come first. "In the long run, counterinsurgency cannot work if the government has no credibility [...] And ultimately, the question of legitimacy is not how we see the Afghan government; it is how the Afghan security services, the Afghan army, see their own masters and how the populations see that combination," Coll, a New Yorker writer and head of the New America Foundation, tells PBS's Frontline.
    You have corruption at basically every level of the political economy. You have it at the petty local level where a policeman will not carry out his duties without being paid by whoever it is he's confronting. You have local ministries where the bureaucrats, starved for salaries, exact fees from citizens to perform services that they should perform for free. You have regional corruption where governors, at least poor governors, take resources intended for the benefit of the population and direct them to their cronies or to their own bank accounts. And you have a much broader national level of corruption where the entire political economy of Afghanistan relies on contributions, cash contributions essentially, from outside. [...] The Afghan government would not function but for money coming from outside the country, from the United States, from the international community. That money flows into Kabul and is too often distributed to those who have access to Kabul rather than to the population it's intended to benefit.
  • Propping Up Karzai Harms Our Mission  The New York Times's Thomas Friedman calls for the U.S. to shift focus from counterinsurgency to battling corruption. "Because when you are mounting a counterinsurgency campaign, the local government is the critical bridge between your troops and your goals. If that government is rotten, your whole enterprise is doomed," he writes. "I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government — not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government." Friedman concludes, "I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people."
  • Corruption Symptomatic of Unpopularity  Kevin Drum suggests the bigger issue is Karzai's legitimacy among Afghans. "I don't think anyone is arguing that corrupt states can't be effective," he writes. "In the modern era, as far as I know, the track record of success for counterinsurgencies led by foreign powers fighting alongside unpopular local governments is approximately zero. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's exactly zero. So the question isn't whether Karzai is corrupt — of course he is — the question is how wide his support is. That's actually a bit of a tricky question, especially in the fractious tribal politics of Afghanistan, but it's the question to ask. Corruption is just a symptom, not the core problem."
  • But Iraq Is More Corrupt  Matthew Yglesias dissents, citing Transparency International data that rates countries on corruption. Afghanistan rated fifth worst in the world, out of 180 states. "Afghanistan, as you can see, is pretty corrupt. That said, it’s not really far out of line with local norms. Sundry other central Asian states join it at the bottom of the barrel. And while it's true that some of the most corrupt countries are anarchic failed states, the examples of Myanmar and Turkmenistan clearly indicate that establishing effective control over your territory doesn’t at all require you to develop good governance or be respected by the people."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.