Saturday, September 04, 2010

Two types of corruption in Afghanistan

by Peter Henne

Things just keep getting more complicated in Afghanistan. Amid the furor over an Afghan official implicated in a high-level corruption scandal, a New York Times article revealed the official had CIA ties. Yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai compared the short-lived arrest of this official to Soviet-era actions. Karzai has also established a council to initiate talks with the Taliban, and today's reporting indicates the United States is taking a permissive view on corruption in the country in order to gain allies against the insurgents.

In a counterinsurgency (or COIN) campaign--especially one in Afghanistan--some complication is to be expected. There is a trade-off between ensuring our partners in the country are virtuous and defeating the brutal insurgents threatening the Afghan people. Local elites--a.k.a. "warlords"--are essential in securing the countryside, but tend to favor private goods for their supporters over public ones. And as distasteful as it might be, some talks with the Taliban may be needed, as long as they do not involve compromising on human rights in the country.

It's important, though, that US leaders don't confuse pragmatic COIN strategies with an easy way out of Afghanistan. This is because there are two types of "corruption." The first is that of the warlords, who stabilize areas in order to profit from them; this can involve extracting resources from the populace in a less than savory manner, but also includes fighting off challengers for control--namely the Taliban. The other type is the corruption of central officials: Karzai and his ilk. It is the same concept, but on a larger scale; as long as Karzai is the most powerful authority in Afghanistan, he will continue reaping private goods. This, however, involves tolerating Taliban control of some areas in order to maintain his hold on the rest of the country, and undermining the power of local elites--who are potential competitors--even if this means a lack of security for the populace.

And thus the distinction. Letting Karzai's indiscretions slide will result in instability throughout Afghanistan, and possibly a Taliban safe-haven. Looking the other way concerning the warlords' problematic actions will not be ideal, but can help to stabilize regions under their control, even if the central government is not directly involved.

It is important as US COIN strategy progresses over the next few months that policymakers realize this distinction, and don't let the pragmatism of working with local elites translate into tolerance for Karzai's corruption.

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