Who Corrupted Afghanistan?

Steve Saideman on who is to blame for the culture of corruption in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai? The CIA? The warlords?
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May 1, 2013

When the New York Timesreported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gave Hamid Karzai and other Afghans big bags of cash, I immediately thought of the classic line from Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” That, and an experience I had in Kandahar in December 2007. As part of a group of academics, so-called ‘opinion leaders’, I participated in a series of briefings and conversations in Brussels, Kabul, and Kandahar. During one of these meeting, I suggested to a CIDA representative that since there was so much corruption in Afghanistan, perhaps it would be best to identify the forms that were most objectionable to the populace and try to deal with those while tolerating the rest. The basic idea was that fighting all corruption would be difficult at best and counterproductive at worst. The CIDA rep would not admit that one could tolerate any corruption at all. Now that the Afghanistan mission is in its final stages, at least for the international community, perhaps it is time to ponder who was right, cynical Steve or the pure CIDA representative? 

It is certainly the case that the influx of money during and after the overthrow of the Taliban fostered a corrupting environment. That’s why one American official quoted in the Times story called the U.S. “the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan.” Sure. The U.S. bought the support of warlords to help overthrow the Taliban. Yes, they could have chosen to invade the country with far more troops so that they wouldn’t have had to rely on the warlords. Then, they wouldn’t have had to dish out bags of cash to Karzai to keep those warlords on his side. But that’s not what happened.

However, we are kidding ourselves if we ignore the realities of Afghanistan pre 9/11. Whatever the country was before 1979, resisting the Soviets and the civil war afterwards empowered those who could smuggle arms and other resources. This happens in most, if not all, civil wars.1 These empowered individuals, a.k.a. warlords, became political realities that one can’t easily ignore, as they force individuals and groups to provide kickbacks, “taxes” at checkpoints, and other forms of tribute. One source of initial support for the Taliban was popular frustration with “rents” these warlords were extracting from the populace. And once you get rid of the Taliban, you then have to deal with the “human terrain” as it exists.

On top of that, the challenge of poppies was going to exist whether or not the U.S. dumped big bags of cash in Afghanistan. Illicit drugs will corrupt any political system, especially one as fragile and decentralized as the Afghan one. Eradication was not a good option as it would antagonize farmers. So, there was plenty of money flowing through the country to corrupt the police and the politicians.

And, as the Times article documents quite clearly, the U.S. was not the only game in town. Iran was also trying to buy or rent influence in Afghanistan. Given the rivalry between India and Pakistan for influence in the country, it is a bit surprising that these countries were not mentioned in the article too, but surely they too are providing money to those who are their (temporary) allies.

Still, the classic question is this: you cannot buy allies, but can you rent them? The answer, in the case of Hamid Karzai, is… sort of.  The U.S. got in Karzai what the international community needed – a Pashtun who had influence in the South but was acceptable to the non-Pashtuns in the rest of the country. The bags of cash certainly enhanced Karzai’s appeal to the warlords outside of the South. But you get what you pay for – in this case a tainted individual who relies on bags of cash to gain support rather than developing good governance. Unless the U.S. and its allies had extended great effort to weaken/supplant the warlords back in 2002-2005, whoever presided over the Afghan government was going to have to deal with them.  Karzai and the U.S. certainly could have been more judicious and tried to put some strings on the bags of cash so that the recipients governed better, would appear to be less rapacious, and perhaps concentrate their rent-seeking on those forms of corruption the people minded less.

Indeed, what is truly frustrating about this account is not so much that there were big bags of cash paying people off, but that the inflow of dollars did not satiate the key actors who still sought to extract money from everyone else in the system. Despite the millions and billions of dollars flowing into and out of Kabul, we still saw demands for kickbacks for contracts at the local level, checkpoints on the roads, and pretty much every other way that the corrupt can demand money for their good will. Perhaps the American (and European and Canadian and Iranian and so on) flood of money helped foster a culture of corruption so that everyone expected a cut, but, again, that would be ignoring what preceded 2001.

The reality is that when outsiders intervene, they prefer to rent influence with money rather than to pay for it with blood. Even an American administration that wasn’t distracted by Iraq would have been unwilling to do what was required to change the big realities on the ground. Instead, the CIA and other agencies relied on methods that have worked and failed elsewhere. Which reminds me of one last thing: we tend to notice when the bags of cash do not work but fail to observe the cases where the CIA (or whoever) gets the influence that it seeks to rent.

1. For a discussion of how the United Nations intervention in Bosnia abetted the empowering of corruption and organized crime, see Peter Andreas’s book on Bosnia.