Sitting in an Mi-8 helicopter, heading back to Kabul with American poppy-eradication advisors, I recognized that I had just had my first encounter with corruption in Afghanistan -- and the United States' dismal efforts to address it. It was early 2005, just before the spring opium poppy harvest, and I had been liaising with eradication advisors sent to villages in eastern Nangarhar province, formerly a prolific poppy cultivator. A well-implemented cultivation ban by the then governor, Haji Din Mohammad, forced over a 90 percent reduction in planting. The few poppy fields I saw were limited to remote areas and were still several weeks away from blooming into fields of brilliant red and pink with white trim. Despite a transfer of authority in the province, the outgoing governor and the incoming governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, had orchestrated the most successful poppy ban and eradication campaign in the country. In 2005, Nangarhar was a poster child of the Afghan war on drugs.
Unfortunately, both Din Mohammad's and Sherzai's enthusiasm for the anti-narcotics campaign was a function of the huge profit opportunity it represented. Opium prices in the country surged, making both governors' reportedly considerable opium interests more profitable for their proxies and supporters. But price control was not the only intent. Eradication itself was a corrupt venture: Governors who were good performers attracted more Western aid, which was all too easily siphoned off. The other half of the game was soliciting bribes and protection payments from poppy farmers, while only eradicating the crops of those who couldn't afford to pay. The advisors I was with knew all this, but their interests rested with eradication and cultivation targets, not with the perverse system of power and profit their targets created.
And so, even as the insurgency gained strength in southern Afghanistan, thousands of similar scams spread through Afghan officialdom. Political expediency, state weakness, opportunity, and an environment of uncertainty have promoted a race to the bottom in Afghan accountability. Money has become the Kabul government's raison d'être, with appointed positions like provincial governor being bought and sold like shares in a company.
The revelation that Osama bin Laden was residing in a Pakistani garrison town has placed the issue of double-dealing by Pakistan's intelligence services at the forefront of the U.S. public debate. But corruption by Afghan officials also continues to undermine public trust in the government, and the United States' aims in the region.
"We are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less," Gen. David Petraeus, head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in March, managing the expectations of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. "There is a very realistic understanding of the conditions in tribal societies."
But it is precisely the absence of a realistic understanding of how corruption works in Afghanistan that has prevented the United States from devising an effective anti-corruption strategy. Nearly a decade into an increasingly unpopular war, international forces have yet to develop and implement a strategy that distinguishes relatively harmless petty corruption from efforts to subvert the state for personal gain -- the latter being the stuff truly damaging to Afghanistan's social fabric and long-term viability.
The United States has doled out well over $50 billion in government assistance to Afghanistan since 2001, but its efforts to rebuild the country increasingly resemble a shell game from which only Afghan warlords profit. Western support itself is part of the problem. In the absence of sound policy, the international community has simply thrown money at the country, undermining the very regime it has been attempting to build.
The responsibility for this failure rests largely with the nature of the counterinsurgency effort. Corruption has only recently become a priority on Petraeus's laundry list of Afghan challenges -- despite the fact that governance has technically always been part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) remit. However, the international focus on countering the Taliban insurgency and the imperative of training Afghan security forces have left the intimately related issue of corruption to fester at the bottom of the agenda.
U.S. and NATO forces have long believed that anti-corruption campaigns were someone else's problem. In the decade after the Taliban's fall, nascent Afghan institutions and international agencies established a byzantine network of anti-corruption efforts that suffered from overlapping and conflicting mandates and gave the campaign a sense of incoherence and confusion. Any Western diplomat, aid worker, soldier, or observer of Afghanistan invariably has a story about banging his or her head against bureaucratic walls when trying to call anything other than superficial attention to the corruption he or she encountered.
Under Petraeus, the military coalition has explicitly recognized that endemic corruption is a driver of the popular dissatisfaction that the Taliban feeds on for support and is a direct threat to the ISAF mission, thereby establishing an anti-corruption shop under the ISAF commander last fall. This means that international military forces are no longer ignoring the corruption issue and, at least on paper, are making it a strategic priority. Much of this work has required a hard look at the international coalition's own role in engendering the corruption it hopes to fight, trying to straighten out its messy contract-awarding process.
As with all issues, there's a learning curve, but as much as any effort in Afghanistan requires ISAF's proactive buy-in, the coalition still lacks the critical tools and issue understanding to be effective in fighting corruption, potentially making the results of an ISAF-led anti-corruption campaign predictably disappointing. ISAF is just now developing an anti-corruption strategy, and its shop is small, lacking the personnel, internal support, analytical credibility, and mandate to effectively corral all of ISAF and outside stakeholders onto the same page.
But solving the problem of corruption in Afghanistan isn't just a matter of institutional introspection, resolving the bureaucratic tangle, or reining in reckless spending. It also requires the international community to recognize and fix its failure to understand and define the nature of Afghan officials' many corrupt activities.
Definitions matter. Along with troops and money, the West has brought certain prejudices and assumptions to Afghanistan. These ebb and flow like catchy refrains among the in-country observers and are often mistaken as meaningful insights. On my most recent trip in February, for example, the oft-repeated leitmotif was: "The Afghan people are not inherently corrupt."
This is entirely true -- no people are inherently corrupt -- but it misses and dismisses the role of Afghanistan's history and society in giving rise to the current manifestations of corruption. It also undermines realistic estimates of what a successful anti-corruption campaign looks like. The forms and function of corruption we see in Afghanistan are as much a reflection of "Afghan society and history" as they are a perversion of it. Just as international forces cannot expect to transform Afghanistan into a modern Western democracy, they cannot hope to implement U.S. or European corruption standards in the country.