September 13, 2010

On Corruption (And Admitting When You're Wrong)

I know think tank researchers, like scholars in academia, are not supposed to admit when they have been wrong about something. But as regular readers of this blog know, I am not above doing that from time to time, in part because the learning process is usually more important than the conclusion at which I have arrived. In June of 2009, I wrote the following in a paper for CNAS:

The United States and its allies must work with the Afghan government before and after the upcoming election to expose and combat the egregious corruption that has eroded popular support for Afghanistan’s civilian institutions.

Yesterday in the New York Times, meanwhile, I said this:

Unless you are prepared to stay in Afghanistan with high troop levels for at least a decade, then an overt campaign to tackle corruption is a big mistake.

So, you're asking, what gives?

Between June of 2009 and May of 2010, when I wrote this paper, I have struggled to determine the wisest course of action for the U.S. government concerning corruption in Afghanistan. From what I can see, there are basically two schools of thought: On the one hand, you have serious people like Sarah Chayes who argue that corruption is the problem in Afghanistan. Afghanistan does not have a weak government, this argument goes. To the contrary, it has a quite effective government: it is "effective" at essentially lining the pockets of the ruling class at the expense of the people themselves. I remember talking with Sarah in Kabul in June of last year and being converted to this way of thinking.

But as I spent more time in Afghanistan last summer and talked to more people back in Washington, I starting wondering whether or not the United States had the time or committment necessary in Afghanistan to really tackle the issue properly. If Afghanistan was going to be our 51st state, then it makes sense to send Patrick Fitzgerald or whoever over to Kabul and let him do his thing. But the reality is that we are trying to leave Afghanistan. So the other school of thought on corruption argues that trying to target corruption in Afghanistan is, like counter-narcotics, the very definition of mission creep. Let's just train up the Afghan National Security Forces and trasition to a security force assistance-type mission as soon as is humanly possible.

I have more sympathy for that second school of thought these days. But I also think Sarah and others are correct that corruption might eventually undermine the very host nation government by, with and through which we plan on keeping al-Qaeda and its allies at bay. So what should we do?

I was greatly enlightened listening to a retired U.S. diplomat last spring who made the point to me that overtly pressing Hamid Karzai on issues related to corruption without first establishing a relationship of trust actually encourages the worst kind of political behavior. Karzai, he argued, goes into a defensive crouch and then lashes out. A better way to approach Karzai would be to first establish a relationship with him and convince him that we are in this conflict together. After establishing a relationship of trust, issues where our interests do not allign could then be tackled discretely. And where we ask Karzai to make what we feel to be necessary reforms, we could ourselves take steps mitigate the risks he would run by doing so.

These ideas made their way into this paper I wrote in May:

Hamid Karzai is, for better or for worse, the United States’ man in Kabul. He can be forgiven, though, for not knowing who his man is in the United States. The United States should settle upon one point person for dealing with the Afghan president, because a healthy relationship with Karzai is the “defeat mechanism” the United States and its allies are looking for in the fight against Afghanistan’s enemies. A political strategy aimed at Afghanistan’s leadership can just as easily rely upon a consensual approach as a coercive approach. But in order for the United States and its allies to not resort to coercive measures, they must first build a relationship with the Afghan president. Amb. Richard Holbrooke, living in and operating from Washington, has unsurprisingly failed to do this. So too, though, has the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. A new U.S. “tsar” for Afghanistan might succeed if he is actually based in Afghanistan, and so too might the NATO senior civilian representative if he is given the full support of the troop-contributing nations. Whoever takes the lead in building this relationship, though, must first convince the Afghan president he has an enduring partner in the United States and its allies and then move on to addressing difficult conflicts of interests.

I hope that all make sense. Corruption in Afghanistan is a difficult issue, and how to deal with it from a U.S. policy perspective is a question about which smart, well-informed people can and do disagree. But I do not feel that overt, U.S.-led or sponsored programs are the correct path forward unless they have buy-in from the highest levels of the Afghan government. And I am not sure that we should focus to heavily on corruption as an issue unless we plan on retaining a very strong presence in Afghanistan well past June 2011.