Corruption and the lack of the rule of law is a fundamental cause of the Afghan debacle.
A version of this article was first published on theGlobalist on March 18, 2018
By Frank Vogl
Sustained efforts by Pakistan's military leaders continue to sabotage American and NATO goals in Afghanistan. No wonder the security situation in the capital is worse than it has been in several years.
The United States' military engagement in Afghanistan started in October 2011 - this is America's longest war.
The insecurity is compounded by an ever-worsening corruption situation. U.S. authorities have repeatedly failed to fully address this core problem. Citizens are constantly extorted. Theft of public resources have undermined efforts to build the Afghan economy. Worse, Western inflows of funds for economic support have actually increased corruption.
Transparency International’s new annual edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan at 177th out of 180 countries surveyed, just a notch above South Sudan, Syria and Somalia.
President Ghani has made valiant efforts to curb corruption, but he has failed. Western governments have financed efforts to improve transparency and accountability in government finances. While such endeavors deserve encouragement, they have scant chance of success. (Global Witness continues to do valiant work to strengthen transparency in Afghanistan's mining sector, underscoring that international civil society has not given up on efforts to find ways to reduce corruption.)
President Ashraf Ghani has also declared he wants peace talks with the Taliban, but it appears that he is being rebuffed.
Trump not interested
President Trump, for his part, has demonstrated no interest at all in the Afghan venture, leaving it entirely to the Pentagon.
White House strategists have long understood that the corruption issues were closely related to actions explicitly taken by the Pakistani military to undermine NATO objectives in Afghanistan.
And yet, as newly published research shows, U.S. officials have been constantly outsmarted by the Pakistanis. President Trump has cut aid to Pakistan to try and make it more cooperative, but history shows this is a strategy that is bound to fail.
Corruption and the lack of the rule of law is a fundamental cause of the Afghan debacle. It takes several forms. There is routine extortion and pay-offs at every level of government and at almost all engagements with the police and the judiciary. This has contributed to building grass roots support for the Taliban (who promise “justice”).
There is large-scale theft of aid – after all, the United States alone has shoveled more than $120 billion in aid into the country and, as a result, made many politically well-connected Afghans very rich.
There is grand corruption entwined with organized crime. This is largely related to the opium trade, which provides basic incomes to farmers growing poppies, as well as to significant smuggling out of Afghanistan of the country’s substantial mineral resources.
The Pakistani military has consistently supported the Taliban, it has worked with the Haqquani network that has supported the Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and that has been a major player in smuggling and the opium trade.
A remarkable new book by journalist and author Steve Coll adds formidable detail to the substantial volume of published work on the Afghan war. Coll’s book is based on hundreds of interviews with U.S., Afghan and Pakistani intelligence officers and many officials from governments who have been engaged with this war since 2001.
“Directorate S – The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” published by Penguin Press, shows how the military leadership in Pakistan, which controls the ISI intelligence service and its “Directorate S,” has been driven by profound fears of India’s potential influence in Afghanistan, and the United States’ close relationship with India.
Pakistan’s ISI has promoted corruption, terrorism and the undermining of any attempt at good governance in Afghanistan. It has weakened the politicians that the United States has supported, first President Karzai and now President Ghani.
There have been thousands of meetings between U.S. officials (Pentagon, State Department, White House, CIA) and the Pakistani military and overall, as Coll shows in enormous detail, the Pakistani’s have consistently outsmarted the Americans.
Coll’s book reinforces three excellent earlier books by foreign correspondents who were based in Afghanistan:
New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall’s indictment of Pakistan in her book, “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014;”
Washington Post journalist Joshua Partlow’s insights to the crime and corruption rampant at the helm of government in “A Kingdom of Their Own – The Family Karzai And The Afghan Disaster;” and,
the compelling story of how American actions have added to Afghan corruption in Sarah Chayes’s “Thieves of State – Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.”
U.S. efforts to curb corruption
Both U.S. Secretary of Defense General James Mattis and former White House National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster served in Afghanistan and made major efforts to counter corruption there, but they were never enough, nor fully supported by the U.S. State Department and the CIA.
They know that unless Afghan citizens have confidence that there can be justice, there will be neither security nor public support for either the government in Kabul or the U.S. military effort. They are now boosting U.S. troop levels to 15,000 in a form of holding operation, absent clear White House decisions on core objectives.
Steve Coll’s book should help to promote a major public policy discussion in Washington about the viable goals of further U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. The book is gaining serious “think tank” attention in Washington.
However, this is a chaotic time in public policy and President Trump’s mind is clearly on many other matters. The same is true for the U.S. Congress. In a recent Senate hearing on major threats to global security, there was barely any mention of Afghanistan.
As it stands, U.S. authorities do not want to face the harsh realities. The quagmire will only deepen.
President Trump boasts constantly that he is all about winning. Yet, where Afghanistan is concerned, a fundamental question needs to be asked: Is it not time for NATO to say we tried our best and now it is time for us to go home?