Some time is likely to pass before the results of Saturday’s National Assembly elections in Afghanistan become known, and are officially announced.
In the meantime, it is useful to reflect on the more fundamental issues facing the United States, NATO and other allied countries engaged in the effort to secure the country from the Taliban–or at least arrange a departure that does not lead to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
As we get caught up in the details provided to our reporters by U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan and Washington, and also those of allied nations, we tend to forget several fundamental facts about the country.
First, Afghanistan is a narco-state, where drug money and drug lords hold inordinate sway.
Second, the country is the second most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International which ranks it 179th, with only the anarchic state of Somalia ranking lower at 180th.
Third, while the United States has supported the development of institutions necessary for good governance over the course of the nine-year war, as have the United Nations and other allied nations, its Central Intelligence Agency has at the same time been paying many high-ranking Afghan officials either as assets or to provide specific information and services, on a long-term and continuing basis. Many of these officials have been known to be corrupt.
Fourth, the United States has been unable to break free from its support of president Hamid Karzai, even when the presidential elections held in August 2009 gave it an opportunity to do so through adherence to the Afghan constitution and the electoral machinery that had been set up in accordance with Afghan legislation. Despite a massive vote against Karzai and for Abdullah that, even after a portion of the votes produced by corruption had been discounted, required that a second-round runoff election be held, the U.S. stood by Karzai.
The massive corruption of the electoral process, apparently orchestrated by Karzai, was corrected in part only by the Electoral Complaints Commission that at that time had a majority of three international members. Lost in the news reporting was the critical fact that the ECC had only examined the results of the voting stations where the most egregious fraud had occurred. The actual extent of the fraud was in all likelihood far greater than that examined and found by the ECC, and it is quite possible that Abdulllah Abdullah, who came in second, could have won a free and fair second round election.
The U.S., instead of facing down Karzai, turned to Pakistan and apparently struck a deal to gain the cooperation of the Pakistani military in negotiating with the Taliban, in exchange for ceasing its pressure on Karzai to either actually hold a second-round election or form a national unity government with Abdullah. In the face of Karzai’s refusal to meet Abdullah’s demand that the members of the Independent Electoral Commission who had orchestrated the fraud be replaced, the latter withdrew from the race.
As Thomas Friedman observed in the New York Times in his March 31 op-ed column,
When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?
See also The Trenchant Observer, “Thomas L. Friedman on Karzai; Hard Options,” March 31, 2010.
Fifth, when U.S. anti-corruption efforts collide with the pervasive corruption at the top of the Afghan government, which reportedly has many high-ranking officials on the CIA payroll, those efforts seem to always be sacrificed as the intelligence agencies weigh in to protect their assets.
See, e.g., Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti, “Karzai Aide in Corruption Inquiry Is Tied to C.I.A.,” New York Times, August 25, 2010
Recently, Karzai blocked the efforts of two U.S. supported Afghan anti-corruption bodies when they sought to arrest officials close to Karzai widely reputed to be corrupt. Karzai then fired Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, who had been in charge of these anti-corruption efforts. The New York Times, in an editorial on August 25, 2010, noted,
A report in Thursday’s Times that the aide, Mohammed Zia Salehi, is a paid agent of the C.I.A. shows, once again, the seamy complications of this war.
In late July, Mr. Salehi, a top national security adviser to Mr. Karzai, was arrested after being accused of soliciting bribes to help block an investigation of the New Ansari Exchange. New Ansari, a financial firm based in Kabul, is suspected of helping move billions of dollars out of Afghanistan.
The two anticorruption agencies, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigations Unit, were established by the Afghan government last year with encouragement from the United States. They are independent, with broad powers to arrest, detain and try suspects, and they receive technical and other help from the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
–Editorial, “Mr. Karzai’s Promises,” New York Times, August 25, 2010
The Central Dilemma Facing the U.S. in Afghanistan
The central dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan is that good governance is required for the Taliban to be checked, both according to U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine (as enunciated in the Army manual drafted by Petraeus), and under the specific conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Yet good governance cannot be built, or governance strengthened, without law and the framework of law that such governance requires.
In a word, the U.S. and its allies are not likely to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, or in reducing the likelihood of destabilization of Pakistan as a result of failure in Afghanistan, without clearly setting out as its objective the establishment and consolidation of a constitutional or rule-of-law state.
That does not mean that the United States must maintain large military forces in Afghanistan until such a state is firmly in place, but it does mean that U.S. and allied efforts in the country must be oriented toward that goal, and not undermine it.
A long-term commitment from the U.S. and its allies on the civilian side, to assist in building and strengthening such a rule-of-law state, may be required. Such a commitment, however, would reassure Afghan partners dedicated to such an enterprise, and potential adherents, that the Umited States will not simply withdraw its troops and leave the country to warlords, drug lords, and the Taliban.
Two must-read articles lay out the depths of the pervasive corruption that exists in Afghanistan, and the inherent contradictions–as well as the strange if not delusional thinking–involved in current U.S. policymaking discussions on the subject of how to fight this corruption. See
Dexter Filkins, “Inside Corrupt-istan, a Loss of Faith in Leaders,” The New York Times, September 4, 2010; and
Mark Mazzetti and Rod Norland, “U.S. Debates Karzai’s Place in Fighting Corruption,” New York Times, September 14, 2010
It’s not as if the Americans and their NATO partners don’t know who the corrupt Afghans are. American officers and anti-corruption teams have drawn up intricate charts outlining the criminal syndicates that entwine the Afghan business and political elites. They’ve even given the charts a name: “Malign Actor Networks.” A k a MAN.
Looking at some of these charts—with their crisscrossed lines connecting politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents — it’s easy to conclude that this country is ruled neither by the government, nor NATO, nor the Taliban, but by the MAN.
It turns out, of course, that some of the same “malign actors” the diplomats and officers are railing against are on the payroll of the C.I.A. At least until recently, American officials say, one of them was Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother. Mr. Karzai has long been suspected of facilitating the country’s booming drug trade.
President Obama’s Response
How has president Obama reacted to Karzai’s interventions to block anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan and his firing of Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar?
On Monday, September 14, Mazzetti and Norland report, the president met with his senior advisors to address the problem:
The Obama administration is debating whether to make Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, a more central player in efforts to root out corruption in his own government, including giving him more oversight of graft investigators and notifying him before any arrests, according to senior American officials.
The corruption issue was at the center of a two-hour White House meeting on Monday, with President Obama and senior aides agreeing that efforts to tackle corruption should be balanced against the need to maintain ties with the Afghan government.
“The discussion on corruption, in essence, is really a discussion about our relationship with Karzai,” said one senior Obama administration official, who like several others interviewed for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Officials cautioned that no firm decisions had been made about whether President Karzai should have any veto power over anticorruption efforts. They said that Mr. Obama told his advisers on Monday to come up with a more “sophisticated” policy toward Afghan corruption.
Mr. Obama, the officials said, directed government agencies — including the Pentagon, the State Department, the Justice Department and the C.I.A. — to develop guidelines that could isolate the corruption that fuels anger among Afghans and drives many into the ranks of the insurgency, as opposed to the more routine kickbacks and bribes that grease the Afghan political system.
“The corruption we need to combat is the corruption that undermines the fight against the Taliban,” said a second American official. “That means going after officials who abuse ordinary Afghans and drive them to the other side — a plundering landlord or a brutal, thieving cop.”
In other words, the idea is to pursue some corruption, but not the corruption at the top of the Afghan government. In the president’s words, the challenge is to come up with a more “sophisticated” policy toward fighting Afghan corruption.
Perhaps more importantly, Obama’s call for more “sophisticated” options for fighting corruption in Afghanistan reflects Karzai’s continued ability to “roll” the president, who every time he hits a brick wall seems to call for more analysis.
There is room for some doubt as to whether these “sophisticated” intellectual distinctions and options, if found and implemented, will ever gain traction in the second most corrupt country in the world, Corrupt-istan.
To the Observer, the idea of trying to make Karzai a more central player in efforts to root out corruption in his own government sounds like giving Al Capone a more central role in cleaning up Chicago.
In the meantime, anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan are “paused”. See Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin, “New Afghan Corruption Inquiries Frozen,” New York Times, September 14, 2010.
The Trenchant Observer
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