At Large

Afghan Corruption in Balance

The costs of doing business in a developing country fighting for its life.

By 1.4.10

The issue of corruption becomes ever more complicated when a developing country is fighting for its existence -- militarily, politically, economically -- and the national leadership must work its hardest to provide advantages to politically strong elements who are loyal to the central government. This is only logical; it's been the logic of the American presence in Afghanistan from the very beginning.

Why then is Washington so upset with the so-called corrupt government of Hamid Karzai? Did he not dispense largesse to those friendly factions that supported him? Did he not use some of the U.S. aid to buy off some of the more moderate Taliban leadership? Did he not ensure that his brother (who has been charged by the American media as a drug kingpin) use his paramilitary contacts to counter anti-government operations in Kandahar and Helmand?

The answer of course is that President Hamid Karzai did all that -- and more. And he did it with the full knowledge of the American political apparat in Kabul and Washington. Perhaps the American officials did not know the full details. And perhaps they didn't know the exact amounts that slipped into the Karzai family's private accounts. But the Americans didn't want to know. That's called the "old Chicago" way. It's also not unknown in Texas.

Apparently one of the things that upset Washington most was to find out that the construction monies of AID were finding their way into the hands of certain Afghan businessmen in the construction trade who were known to be friendly with the Taliban. Old timers immediately remembered Vietnam, and older timers remembered the days of the Korean War and the corrupt but U.S.-favored leadership of Syngman Rhee. It's a story as ancient as history itself, and certainly not limited to the American experience.

Fifty years ago the late Kenneth Dadzie, who went on to be Secretary General of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), explained away the existence of graft in newly independent countries as follows: "Yes, there is at least fifteen per cent placed on the top of every government contract that is for the political leadership to do with what they wish. That money goes mostly to the tribal and union leaders who are the ones who carry the burden of the local scene. I wish it was otherwise, but that is the reality of the moment. I assure you it's all well organized. If this 'dash' system wasn't well organized -- well, that would be criminal."

One of the best examples of this culturally approved, well-organized system of "payoff" is found in the region of northwestern Afghanistan around Herat. This region has been dominated for many years by Ismail Khan, a former Afghan Army officer, who had fought against the Soviets and subsequently the Taliban. Khan, when he was governor of the province, built his political base by husbanding taxes that had been collected and using them for local development rather than shifting a portion of the revenue to Kabul that Afghan government regulations require. His well-equipped private army has kept the Herat region secure in the face of repeated Taliban efforts to destabilize the province.

Khan remains a key figure in the new Karzai cabinet and is an essential component in the struggle against the Taliban. Reality therefore dictates that Ismail Khan and his Herat followers must be favored to continue their efforts to maintain a strong front against Taliban efforts and interests. This takes money and resources. Is it corrupt to especially reward Khan and others like him in order to build and preserve a pro-Western Afghan rule? Was Ken Dadzie wrong? More to the point, would Washington reorder its own standing domestic political methodology?

The Afghan nation is made up of many individuals in leadership posts -- tribal, political, military -- all of whom carry claims on the central government. They may not have as broad-ranging influence as the man from Herat, but each in their own way is important to creating and maintaining stability toward the objective of countering Taliban influence.

If the U.S. and NATO intend to be effective in Afghanistan, they will have to understand and deal with the phenomenon of Afghan tribal orientation and dominance. It's a bit like operating in Chicago or elsewhere in the United States where established political power dominates. You have to know where the levers are, and then you have to know when, where, and how to pull them.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.