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Ignoring Afghan Rot

Ann Marlowe

News broke this week that federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District are investigating Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Mahmoud on charges that may ultimately include tax evasion, racketeering or extortion. But the recent history of US anti-corruption efforts for Afghanistan raises fears that this probe, too, will be quashed.

The word is that the Obama administration has decided to let Karzai “deal” with higher-level corruption while we focus on the local level. As anyone who has followed Karzai’s actions knows, this is a bad joke.

In July, two US-advised task forces in Afghanistan, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Special Investigative Unit, arrested a senior Karzai adviser, Mohammad Zia Salehi. Salehi was allegedly using bribery to obstruct a probe of the New Ansari Exchange for laundering opium profits and aiding the Taliban.

This was not minor stuff: New Ansari has moved $3.1 billion in cash out of Afghanistan since 2007. But Karzai yelped about violations of sovereignty, and the United States turned a blind eye when Salehi was released.

Then, early this month, Afghanistan’s largest bank, Kabul Bank, part-owned by Mahmoud Karzai, nearly collapsed amid allegations of insider loans gone bad. America pressed for a probe of the bank, which our government uses to pay the Afghan army, police and schoolteachers—but there has been no word recently on what’s happening.

There’s also Task Force 2010, a military effort launched in June under the leadership of Rear Adm. Kathleen Dussault. This was to oversee Pentagon contracting to ensure it wasn’t benefiting Afghan thugs or subverting our war strategy. It was focused on southern Afghanistan and the delicate role of another Karzai brother, Ahmad Wali, who is suspected of links to the opium trade and the insurgency. But Dessault, a logistics expert who holds two-star rank, was just replaced by an Army brigadier with no contracting experience after only four months on the job.

In yet another failure of American nerve, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee decided this summer not to release a potentially explosive report on Afghan corruption.

“The US stand on corruption within the Afghan government lacks consistency and continuity,” says 2009 presidential runnerup Dr. Abdullah. (Like many Afghans, he has just one name.) “In Afghanistan, concerns about deep-rooted corruption are beyond the issues of good governance and rule of law, it also fuels insurgency and jeopardizes the efforts against terrorism.”

That is, tolerance of corruption among Afghanistan’s rulers is the quickest way to further destabilize Afghanistan.

In a land that has no system of political parties and precious little civil society, stolen money translates directly into political clout. Many Afghans fear that President Karzai has used the vast financial resources we have put under his control to buy this month’s parliamentary elections, just as he bought last year’s presidential vote.

Afghans are largely uneducated, but not stupid. A June poll of Kandahar citizens found 70 percent believe that local officials make money from drug trafficking, and an astonishing 64 percent state that government administrators in their area were connected to the Taliban insurgency.

Yet even in the alleged Taliban heartland, Afghans value democracy: 40 percent stated that democracy was important to them, and 72 percent would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.

As if to quash such hopes, US commanders in Kandahar brought the entire militia of Afghan warlord Gul Aga Sherzai into the Kandahar police in July. Indeed, we’ve empowered a variety of Afghan thugs—such as Border Police boss Abdul Razik, widely rumored to be a player in the heroin trade—on the thin rationale that they provide useful intelligence.

Gen. David Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual says with simple good sense: “The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

Or as Col. Brian Mennes of the 82nd Airborne says of his Afghan deployment, “What I found is that the most we could hope to do was to impress the Afghans that we were good people. That we would live out our values in front of them . . . and leave them with the impression that the flag on our uniform was a symbol of hope, like it has been for so many throughout history.”

We need to show Afghans that everyone is subject to—and no one above—the law. Otherwise, as Afghan diplomat Ahmad Wali Masoud says, “The culture of corruption Mr. Karzai has encouraged will continue probably for decades.”

The existing anti-corruption teams must be urged forward with the same vigor they would use in the United States. The mess at Kabul Bank—and allegations of equally lax procedures at other privately held Afghan banks—must be scrutinized just as they would be here.

After all, American taxpayers are footing the bill for the Karzai family’s shenanigans. The next time President Karzai whines about sovereignty, President Obama should remind him in no uncertain terms at whose grace he became and remains president. If he doesn’t like his situation, he’s more than free to leave.

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