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The latest round of U.S. State Department cables from Wikileaks focuses on Afghanistan, and the news is just as dire and grim as you imagine. Here's what they say and what it means. Be sure to check the Atlantic Wire's coverage of fighting Afghan corruption, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's tough relationship with the U.S., and the Taliban peace talks (if they're even really happening).

  • How Corruption Makes Everything Harder  The New York Times' Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins write, "Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier. ... Predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society." They say this makes improving Afghanistan so hard because the top two goals -- purge corrupt officials and promote popular confidence in the government -- are near-impossible to do at the same time.
  • The Four-Part Graft Process  Foreign Policy's Katherine Tiedemann lays it out: "An Afghan official pointed out the four stages at which money is skimmed from U.S. development projects: 'When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.' The informal money transfer system called hawala is said to facilitate much of the country's corruption, and Karzai's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, accused of graft and involvement in the drug trade, is called the 'kingpin of Kandahar.'"
  • Contractors Paid for 'Dancing Boys'  The Guardian's Jon Boone writes, "A scandal involving foreign contractors employed to train Afghan policemen who took drugs and paid for young 'dancing boys' to entertain them in northern Afghanistan caused such panic that the interior minister begged the US embassy to try and 'quash' the story." There was even video. "There is a long tradition of young boys dressing up as girls and dancing for men in Afghanistan, an activity that sometimes crosses the line into child abuse with Afghans keeping boys as possessions."
  • The Karzai Problem  The New York Times' Helene Cooper and Carlotta Gall say the cables show Karzai's "trajectory from the eager leader anointed by the West to an embattled politician who often baffles, disappoints or infuriates his official allies. American and foreign diplomats have tried to keep their complaints about Mr. Karzai private. But now, thanks to the cables, there is a more official chronicling — brutally candid views of Mr. Karzai recorded by State Department officials after high-level meetings, detailing the steady deterioration in his reputation in the nine years since he took office. For the Obama administration, the disclosure of the cables — dating from 2004 to 2009 — could exacerbate an already fraught relationship."
  • Why Are We Fighting To Prop This Guy Up?  Juan Cole writes, "My own hypothesis is that the US is still in Afghanistan at this late date mainly to shore up the central government of President Hamid Karzai. ... The problem with Karzai is not that he is weak. Rather it is that he is corrupt and believes in conspiracy theories, and the combination of the two causes him to act high-handedly and improperly. And here is the moral question: Is it right to ask US warriors to fight and day to prop up the administration of Hamid Karzai?"
  • Afghans and U.S. Have 'Devastating Contempt' For Brits  The Guardian's Jon Boone writes, "Britain's four-year military stewardship of the troubled Helmand province has been scorned by President Hamid Karzai, top Afghan officials and the US commander of Nato troops, according to secret US diplomatic cables. The dispatches expose a devastating contempt for the British failure to impose security and connect with ordinary Afghans."

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