Stephen M. Walt

Re: Afghan corruption: Do as we say, not as we do

Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don’t have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don't have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.

Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he's facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He's betting that Obama won't be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I'm sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.

But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday's New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population. 

Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don’t have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.

Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he’s facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He’s betting that Obama won’t be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I’m sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.

But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday’s New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population. 

There are three problems here. 

First, as Times reporter Richard Oppel pointed out in his piece, we can’t easily discriminate between Taliban sympathizers and other members of the local population, so some of the money we are disbursing is almost certainly going to our enemies. 

Second, other recipients of U.S. cash are quickly targeted by the Taliban, which continues to enjoy signifcant support among the local population. If Oppel’s account is accurate, we are basically reminding the local population that cooperating with us is really, really dangerous. Moreover, as William Polk argues here, many local Pashtuns actually oppose these various cash-based "aid programs," because they perceive them (correctly) as designed to aid a foreign occupier’s campaign against them, and to strengthen the despised central government.

Third, how can we credibly tell Karzai to "end corruption" (i.e., patronage, drug-dealing, payments to warlords, the exchange of cabinet positions for support, etc.), when we’re relying on some of the same tactics ourselves? If our approach is to buy political support by doling out money or other benefits, why are we surprised when Karzai and his henchmen employ more-or-less that same approach back in Kabul? Pumping piles of cash into the local economy (no doubt with little or no accounting) is precisely the sort of policy that itself encourages very corruption that we claim to be opposing.

Even though I don’t regard Afghanistan as a vital interest (for reasons I’ve explained before), I would like to think that our overall strategy was working. Remaining bogged down there is costly, and a significant distraction from other policy problems. So it would be nice if we were making genuine progress in weakening the Taliban, encouraging a political process of reconciliation, and fostering a more effective Afghan government. But it sure sounds like our efforts are at cross-purposes right now, which may be one reason why relations with the Karzai government are deteriorating

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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