December 03, 2010

Cables Shed Light On Complex U.S.-Afghan Ties

Another series of diplomatic cables has been released by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, highlighting two pervasive challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan: corruption and dealing with President Hamid Karzai.

Many of the hurdles have been documented over the past few years, but the leaked diplomatic cables give a sense of the scale of the problem. The cables clearly show how pervasive and corrosive the corruption is, and just how far up the political ladder it reaches.

Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, says much of the information was already known, but there's more to be gleaned from the cables.

"You can find new insights into our own conduct of this war, our own conduct of our diplomacy," he said. "Even though there's nothing new, there are new vivid details about corruption, about the challenge that we face, really, toward trying to achieve a political objective, and an outcome."

Although much of this information has come out in congressional hearings or through the media, Cronin says it makes a difference to see the concerns and complaints written down on paper.

"To see something in print makes a difference," he said. "It does give it more impact. To see the actual cable arrests your mind, and says, 'My goodness, this is serious.' "

Some of the diplomatic cables illustrate the scale of the graft: officials taking vast sums of money or paying huge bribes to secure lucrative positions of power.

One cable talks about the brother of revered military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by suspected al-Qaida militants. The brother, Ahmed Zia Massoud, is a politician with a salary of a few hundred dollars a month. The diplomatic cable says last year he was caught carrying $50 million on arrival in Dubai. Massoud denies the allegation.

"How one person can carry $50 million — where is the proof of this $50 million? I am ready to answer anywhere I am required," he said. "This is completely wrong and incorrect."

Other cables describe how efforts by U.S. anti-corruption officials who were trying to curb graft, along with their Afghan counterparts, were thwarted by senior government officials, including Karzai. Many of the secret messages to Washington paint Karzai as a deeply troubled and insecure man.

Cables written by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry point to Karzai's mood swings and the president's tendency to blame the U.S. for all that is wrong in Afghanistan.

C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's Peace and Security Studies Program, says none of these criticisms will be new to Karzai.

"It's easy to point the finger at Karzai because he is so deeply culpable of so many problems," she said. "But it really has to be remembered that this is a synergistic relationship, and the way in which we have dealt with Karzai — to serve the purposes of our counterinsurgency — is, quite frankly, hypocritical at best."

For example, Fair says, look at the way the U.S. treats Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is head of the provincial council in Kandahar.  Several cables focus on his alleged ties to Afghanistan's opium trade.

"It's one thing to be very clear that he is a part of an enormous drug-trafficking network that nets all sorts of proceeds that go into various pockets," she said. "But how about the reality that he's been on the CIA payroll?"

But the diplomatic cables are not meant to analyze or offer solutions, says Thomas Johnson, an Afghanistan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. The cables are just raw data and observations, but when they are leaked like this, they can send out the wrong signal, he says.

"The average Afghan looks at us and says, 'Why is it taking so long?' And they've completely lost confidence in us," he said. "So many of the average Afghans will look at this and say, 'Hey, you know, the perception is the United States just isn't doing enough.' There's some truth in that, but there's a much bigger story, actually."

Johnson says at least this batch of leaked documents has not put anyone's life in danger. The last time WikiLeaks revealed secret and confidential documents on Afghanistan, local translators and informers were named, placing them in jeopardy.