President Hamid Karzai’s firing of Afghanistan’s deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, over his refusal to block investigations of high-level corruption is extremely troubling — but hardly surprising. I sympathize with those such as Congresswoman Nita Lowey who want to hold up aid to Afghanistan in protest against such blatant cover-ups. Such efforts may actually be useful, in that they provide American officials in Kabul with a stick they can use to threaten Karzai with in private.
But the reality is that there are few Third World countries where the judiciary and law-enforcement authorities are independent enough to allow investigations of corruption reaching into the president’s office. Even in the U.S., we have experience with high-level malfeasance going unpunished; recall LBJ’s notorious corruption or Clinton’s perjury. This should not cause us to throw up our hands in despair and declare that the mission in Afghanistan is hopeless. It’s not. Nor should we say that fighting corruption is impossible. It must be fought, and it’s possible to do — as long as we don’t limit our efforts to Afghan criminal justice, where Karzai and his cronies can all too easily frustrate investigations of their shenanigans.
There are other legal options available. Since much of the money in question comes from U.S. taxpayers to begin with, malefactors can be prosecuted in U.S. courts or they can have their funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, whether in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, or the U.S. Moreover, with the growing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, our commanders on the ground have ways of squeezing corrupt officials that don’t require a court order. The sort of thing I have in mind is a staple of cops-and-robbers movies, where the police tell some notorious gangster that until he does what they want, they will harass him: raid his businesses, interrogate his employees, scare away his customers. Such pressure is perfectly legal and can be applied against all sorts of malign actors in Afghanistan — or at least threatened. Senior officials have substantial financial interests that are highly vulnerable to Western pressure, and those interests can be manipulated to put pressure on them to clean up their act. That won’t eliminate corruption altogether, but it could reduce it to less catastrophic levels.