What will it take for the allies to agree that the Afghan government isn't worth supporting?
I've written in the past about how the weak link in our Afghan strategy is the Afghan government which NATO and our other allies in Afghanistan are defending.
The new WikiLeaks cables provides more evidence of government corruption. One cable alleges that the Vice President of Afghanistan -- Zia Massoud -- was stopped in the United Arab Emirates because he was carrying $52 million dollars. In cash. It is difficult to believe that he was carrying his represents his personal fortune with him. If the cable is true, you could not do better as vignette of government corruption.
What is even more startling in a way is what the reaction says about such corruption. Firstly, Mr. Massoud himself simply denies taking money out of Afghanistan. And secondly, the Afghan government has responded to the general release of this new tranche of WikiLeaks revelations by saying that there is nothing in them which it finds surprising. The message they are sending is, in effect, that corruption is not news.
This comes on top of WikiLeaks revelations that US embassy staff consider Karzai "weak" and "driven by paranoia," a US ambassador who last year wrote that the government barely deserves a further US deployment, and a government which has already proved its anti-democratic credentials by winning an election thanks to deals with regional strongmen and unashamed quasi-official policy of bribing militants not to attack voters or polling stations. (As I have written before: it is perhaps indicative that we do not know this because some intrepid investigative journalist got the scoop, but because the head of Afghanistan's Intelligence service openly said so).
Why does this matter, you might ask? After all, the allies are supporting the Afghan government to prevent the return of the Taliban, not because it is such a straight-dealing institution.
True. But I would argue that such corruption, and the perception of such corruption, does indeed undermine our mission. At root, we are trying to build up the Afghan army and police force until it is strong enough to enable us to leave Afghanistan to run itself without the prospect of the Taliban returning.
Both are dangerous jobs, and have been the target of Taliban terror in the past. The risk to any individual seeking to sign up to either is high. But the more corrupt the government is seen to be, the harder it will be to recruit and retain the men for both the army and the police, on which the post-NATO future of this government depends.
Nor should we delude ourselves about the size of the task of giving Afghanistan a national army which controls all of its territory. Firstly, this has never happened in the whole history of the country. Second, we are talking about a country spanning 647,500 square kilometers of mountainous terrain. And thirdly, with no effective border at all with Pakistan, accountability and sovereignty in the border region is never going to be tightly distinguishable. And that means that when we are talking about a national army controlling the entirety of Afghan territory, it is not even clear where exactly such territory ends and that of Pakistan begins. Under these circumstances, the goal of denying the Taliban a safe haven within this territory is devastatingly ambitious. In these outlying areas, the national government is seen as a distant authority, one whose power very much depends on US and allied backing, and one that is corrupt.
I do not make these charges lightly. Like anyone, I want to see a stable Afghanistan with strong institutions and real progress, however slow, towards the kind of democracy in which votes are chosen and not bought and in which the government offers the people security and basic services rather than ends up as the destination for funds after a chain of backroom deals. But I just do not see that progress. The lack of surprise in Kabul at WikiLeaks' revelation that the vice-president of the country should be traveling with $52 million dollars on his person just reinforces the perception of cynicism at the top.
I want to see progress, but I do not. It is not so much that the government is corrupt, incompetent, increasingly undemocratic, lacks popular support or shows no signs of trying to regain it. It is that with a government like that, it becomes ever harder for the allies to tell the Afghans why they should support such a government, and ever harder for the leaders of allied countries to justify the deployment which keeps it there.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
Follow me on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)