The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan

The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan

Continuing Confusion over Whether to Tackle Corruption and How

The lack of resolution of the debate over whether effective counterterrorism in Afghanistan requires state-building also has produced continuing policy oscillation over whether to combat corruption and how. Reliance on corrupt and abusive warlords for intelligence, logistics, and direct counterterrorism operations often comes at the price of ignoring governance issues. Some of the most notorious powerbrokers, such as Ahmed Wali Karzai, Matullah Khan, and Gul Agha Shirzai, know how to get things done to facilitate the operations of the international community in Afghanistan. The internationals are often too isolated behind the Hesco gravel bags at their compounds to be aware how rapacious and discriminatory some of their key Afghan interlocutors have been, or just choose to ignore their problematic aspects.

Especially early on, the Obama administration accorded greater importance to fighting corruption in Afghanistan: building up various civilian structures, such as the Major Crime Task Force, and ultimately similar equivalent units within ISAF, such as its anti-corruption task force, Shafafyat. But it often demanded reform with an intensity that ignored Afghan realities and political complexities — a system in which the highest government officials as well as the lowest ones, line ministries, banking centers, and most international contracts are pervaded by corruption. The Obama anti-corruption campaign thus secured dramatic promises from President Karzai to tackle corruption, with little actual follow up. Moreover, the lack of prioritization as to what corruption needs to be addressed first and definitely, often ignores the political debts President Karzai owes and his internal entanglements and dependencies. Karzai thus often seeks (and many times succeeds) to reverse the anti-corruption efforts, such as indictments of powerful corrupt officials or the development of anti-corruption and anti-crime institutions which the internationals are trying to stand up.

But as the Obama administration decided to scale down its military presence in Afghanistan, U.S. officials started vacillating once again in their determination to take on corruption. Many in the U.S. government have begun to argue that tackling corruption is a luxury the United States can no longer afford; instead it needs to prioritize stability. This school of thought holds that limiting the military mission in Afghanistan mostly to remotely-delivered airborne counterterrorist strikes could permit working through the local warlords and powerbrokers, instead of being obsessed with the means they used to acquire their power and their criminal entanglements and discriminatory practices. Meanwhile, absent a coherent policy on corruption, the Obama administration and ISAF have failed to develop mechanisms and structures to work around and marginalize the problematic powerbrokers and often continue to be dependent on their services. As a high-ranking ISAF official in Kandahar told me in the fall of 2010, “In the current struggle for Kandahar, our nightmare is having to take on the Taliban and Wali [the then-alive Ahmed Wali Khan] at the same time. But we understand that he has alienated some people in Kandahar.” He then went on to enthusiastically describe how then-Col. Abdul Razziq – a notorious powerbroker and smuggler from Spin Boldak –recently successfully cleared Mahlajat, a troubled subdistrict of Kandahar City, off the Taliban, “something even the Soviets couldn’t do.” ISAF has since brought Razziq to Arghandab and other areas of Kandahar to conduct military operations there and he has been named police chief in Kandahar. A former high official of the U.S. PRT in Kandahar explained the difficulties the international community has faced when trying to impose on powerbrokers such as Razziq redlines, such as no undermining of provincial and district officials and no interference with the Peace Jirga (a body established by President Karzai to set up the broad framework for reconciliation with the Taliban) and parliamentary elections. “But very quickly they violated all of the redlines we gave them. But they are effective in getting things done. We can’t go after them at the same time as we are fighting the Taliban. When the Taliban is defeated, the Afghans will take care of the powerbrokers themselves.” In short, the U.S. and international community’s commitment to good governance and the tackling of corruption has been deeply conflicted. All too often, it has appeared troublingly inconsistent and half-hearted to Afghans.

The massive infusion of tens of billions of foreign aid into Afghanistan has also generated its own corruption. Large amounts of the aid money appear to have been siphoned off by clever powerbrokers. At other times, these financial flows have strengthened existing powerbrokers who can get their hands on the money and who have developed vested interests in preventing others and the population at large from accessing these financial flows. Some of the contract wars in places like Kandahar have been actual wars with rival businessmen linked to prominent tribes and powerbrokers, such as the Popolzais and Ahmed Wali Karzai on the one hand and the Barakzais and Gul Agha Shirzai on the other hand, physically shooting each other to get access to the contract money and setting up coercive monopolies under the guise of business associations to control the rents. At other times, the aid flows have given rise to new “khans,” further undermining both the traditional institutions as well as the official government that the international community has struggled to stand up. Many have financially profited from the insecurity that generates demands for private security companies and militias and that prevents effective monitoring.

The international community’s strategy has thus oscillated between tolerating corruption for the sake of other goals — with the justification that Afghans are used to corruption anyway– or confronting it head on, but with little effectiveness.

A constant challenge and dilemma has been whether to provide money through the Afghan government — “on budget ” — or directly from the international community to “the people.” In theory, channeling outside financial aid through the national government is highly desirable since it can increase fiscal capacity of the state and link the population more closely to the state, building accountability. Yet, the Afghan government at its various levels has turned out to be too corrupt and too lacking in capacity to process the money (at least what has been left after the international community’s “overhead” deductions). Bypassing the national government and channeling money directly or through NGOs have resulted at times in the money reaching the ground faster (though not necessarily in a less corrupt manner). But such mechanisms also have undermined the government’s authority and capacity and often have strengthened local powerbrokers. At the July 2010 donor conference in Kabul, President Karzai won a pledge from the international community that at least fifty percent of all economic assistance would be channeled through the national government within two years, while the United States announced it now believed it had developed a certification process to determine which Afghan ministries were qualified to receive U.S. assistance directly.

Ignoring corruption is often justified as prioritizing stability, but since corruption and the lack of rule of law are key mobilizing mechanisms for the Taliban and source of Afghans’ anger with their government, it is doubtful that stability can be achieved without addressing at least the most egregious corruption. Yet the system is so pervasively corrupt and so deeply and intricately linked to key structures of power and networks of influence, that some prioritization of anti-corruption focus is required. Although the internationals currently do not have the capacity to do without the powerbrokers, they can mitigate at least their most detrimental behavior, such as systematic discrimination against particular tribes. Anti-corruption efforts should focus on limiting tribal or ethnic discrimination in access to jobs, especially in the ANA and ANP, and on expanding access to markets and contracts. A corollary of limiting ethnic discrimination within the security services is making sure that particular ethnic groups or people from particular regions who do not have access to influential powerbrokers in the higher-level commands are not selectively posted to very violent areas for too long without being rotated out; also that command levels are not dominated by a particular ethnic group, such as the Tajiks; and salaries and leaves are distributed by superiors without discrimination.

Additionally, it is critical to focus on corruption that undermines the emergence of the already fragile markets in Afghanistan. Such severely detrimental corruption includes unofficial checkpoints and escalating bribes to be paid at the checkpoints, corruption in the banking sector, such as the theft at the Kabul Bank that threatened to unravel Afghanistan’s entire banking sector, and corruption in line ministries wherein a bribe is paid and yet the service is still not delivered and the bribe has to be paid several times over.

Finally, efforts to undermine effective local officials should not be tolerated. The international community should use the problematic powerbrokers as little as possible and only as last resort. The damage the powerbrokers can inflict on the international community’s efforts may well necessitate “having them in the tent rather than trying to pull the stakes off the tent on the outside,” as an ISAF official put it. But if the powerbrokers bring down the tent from the inside by their rapacious behavior, the state-building effort will be equally ineffective.

There is a real cost to prioritizing the anti-corruption campaign as opposed to combating corruption of any sort in a blanket way. The prioritized approach requires an intelligence picture that the international community does not have. And it can again expose the international community to the risk of being seen as inconsistent and embracing double-standards. But with the continuing dependence on problematic interlocutors, such prioritized focus is perhaps the best the internationals can currently hope to accomplish. Emphasizing all corruption equally will likely run up against the political dependencies of the current Afghan government and motivate it to do nothing on corruption to avoid rocking the boat.

However, whatever redlines the internationals do set for the powerbrokers, the internationals need to be prepared to uphold. And they need to be willing to take punitive actions if the powerbrokers violate them. The internationals thus should only set as redlines for President Karzai and for the powerbrokers such limits that they actually have the will and capacity to enforce. A consistent failure to act against behavior designated as intolerable only undermines the reputation and effectiveness of the international community.

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