Everyone knows that corruption is a huge, crippling, corrosive problem in Afghanistan and that reducing it won’t be easy. But aside from the obvious obstacles we face — namely an entrenched political class in Afghanistan that has gotten rich from foreign lucre — there is a not-so-obvious obstacle as well: the interest that many in the U.S. government have in lubricating relationships with lots of greenbacks. In this connection the New York Times‘s Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti have a great scoop today about how the CIA has been paying off Mohammed Zia Salehi, the aide to President Karzai who has been charged with corruption. As the Times account notes, “Other prominent Afghans who American officials have said were on the C.I.A.’s payroll include the president’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, suspected by investigators of playing a role in Afghanistan’s booming opium trade.”
The list is actually considerably longer, and from the CIA’s narrow standpoint, the investments are well justified. The Times quotes an anonymous “American official” as follows: “If we decide as a country that we’ll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road — and certainly not at our behest — put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now. If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins.” True, and the CIA has been paying off rogues for information ever since its inception. Such activity is to be expected from any competent intelligence service, but in Afghanistan, this has had parlous consequences.
The funding that the CIA has provided — along with largesse from the U.S. military, USAID, the State Department, and other agencies — has turbo-charged the problem of corruption. It has led to the emergence of a class of malign actors, fabulously wealthy Afghans who have connections not only to the U.S. government but also to the Taliban and the drug cartels. They are widely seen as the real center of power in Afghanistan, and it is this perception, more than anything else, that fuels support for the insurgency. The problem begins at the top with Hamid Karzai who, shamefully, intervened to get Salehi sprung from jail shortly after his arrest.
Some in the U.S. government believe that there is nothing to be done about such corruption and that fighting it is counterproductive because it will damage our “relationships” with key Afghans. As one “Obama administration official” tells Filkins and Mazzetti: “Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep.” Wrong. Fighting corruption is the only way to achieve our mission. That won’t require eliminating corruption — truly a mission impossible. But it should be possible to reduce corruption from the current, off-the-charts levels to more socially acceptable norms. In fact, this is the most urgent priority for NATO forces. To achieve that objective, President Obama will have to make sure that all U.S. government agencies and officials are on board. So far, as the Salehi scandal shows, that hasn’t been the case.