The Obama administration is once again wrestling with the proper role of the fox in policing the henhouse.
Not that we should see President Karzai himself as the problem. He’s just emblematic of an Afghan political elite whose tactics for staying in power are stubbornly inconsistent with Western efforts to build a stable, legitimate Afghan government. (Or maybe I should say the Western vision — our actual efforts have rarely followed the blueprint).
After the 2009 election farce, Western governments made the reluctant decision to support the existing elite. The highly risky alternative would have been trying to turn the clock back to 2002: convening a new transitional administration, loya jirga, and constitution (as suggested by some seasoned, disgruntled observers — and more recently by the ASG, as that’s what their governance recommendations would require). Instead, we admitted that we need Karzai & Co even more than they need us. It should hardly be surprising that any campaigns against corruption, narcotics trafficking, election fraud, or abuses of power now have to select targets at an appropriately low level:
“The corruption we need to combat is the corruption that undermines the fight against the Taliban,” said a second American official. “That means going after officials who abuse ordinary Afghans and drive them to the other side — a plundering landlord or a brutal, thieving cop.”
Unbelievable. Anyone who has engaged with Afghanistan knows how much high-level corruption in Kabul undermines the fight against the Taliban. Set aside for a moment the crucial loss of legitimacy — it has directly undermined the bank that pays the salaries of the soldiers and police. Yes, the predatory brutality of many ANP is an important driver of support for the insurgency; but meaningful police reform has to start with the Ministry of Interior, not just the mascaraed gunmen strewn around the country.
By deciding to stick with our man in Kabul (and the broader Afghan elite he represents), the West has already conceded the battle against high-level corruption. The current government of Afghanistan can not and will not muster itself to “out-govern” the insurgents. Continuing to fund the Karzai administration is not a strategy for victory, just for freezing Afghanistan at a high but (for the West) tolerable level of instability.
It’s painful to watch the cognitive dissonance with our purported COIN mission play out in the White House.