Just as important as the battle against Taliban militants is the struggle against corrupt officials in the Afghan government, who undermine public confidence and drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. U.S. forces know how to carry out security operations. Cleaning up corruption is much harder. How is that struggle going?
The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. There are some positive signs, to be sure, including the fact that General Petraeus has appointed H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest general officers in the entire Army — to run an anti-corruption task force. And today comes word, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article, that “Afghan prosecutors are planning to indict nearly two dozen current and former senior officials — the current mining minister among them — on allegations of taking bribes and stealing government funds.” Those prosecutions are certainly welcome, although it is unclear what impact they will have, since most of the targets are former, not current, officials, and thus by definition hardly members of President Karzai’s inner circle.
It is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. For an indication of what’s needed, think back to 2004, when Karzai, with the strong aid and encouragement of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, succeeded in forcing warlord Ismail Khan out of his fiefdom in Herat. This was one of the bravest and most impressive challenges that Karzai has ever mounted against the power brokers and warlords who exercise such a baleful influence on events in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in recent years Karzai has been more focused on making common cause with abusive politicians than confronting them. This is due in part to his own weakness, and in part to the lack of support from the United States. Khalilzad was a friend of Karzai’s — someone Karzai felt he could count on. Karzai hasn’t had a similar relationship with any ambassador since; his relationship with Karl Eikenberry, the current ambassador, is said to be particularly tense. Karzai has faced public sniping from the Obama administration, which (however justified) has led to a loss of confidence on his part and a tendency to reach accommodation with some of the most corrupt characters in Afghanistan.
To deal corruption a real blow, Karzai will need to remove a major power broker, such as his own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. That doesn’t necessarily mean criminal prosecution; Ahmed Wali could simply be sent as ambassador to the Seychelles.
But for something dramatic like that to happen, Karzai will need to have more support from, and more confidence in, the U.S. government than he currently does. And the U.S. government, in turn, will have to make a common determination that fighting corruption is actually a real priority. At the moment, too many officials regard it as more important to reach a modus vivendi with the powers that be. There are always practical, short-term arguments for such dealmaking, but the long-run consequence is to squander the trust of the Afghan people, which is our most important asset in the war against the Taliban.