A couple days ago I was on the phone with my friend and occasional Afghanistan sparring partner, Michael Cohen, and the subject of corruption came up. Michael pointed me to a really pungent quote I had missed, from an anonymous Obama official in a Times story: “Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep.” It’s easy to see why: what in the world does Afghan government corruption have to do with disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda? Indeed, Anthony Cordesman has a really thought-provoking CSIS paper pointing out that one of the most structurally corrupting influences in Afghanistan is the presence of massive amounts of foreign (read: U.S.) cash that vastly exceed the country’s absorbtive capacity.
A subset factor behind this corruption that I think we’ve all tended to overlook is that from roughly 2002 to 2008, when there was more of a U.S. interest in making pronouncements about what Afghanistan ought to be in a nation-building sense than resources to get it there, the U.S. had a really expedient option: the CIA. Get the agency to throw some cash around, at some warlords or Karzai relatives or whomever, and that’s your nation-building strategy. It doesn’t make much sense to catch the vapors over how Ahmed Wali Karzai or Mohammed Zia Salehi gets CIA money. For a long time, the CIA led a de facto governance strategy, all through a counterterrorist prism. What makes more sense when you’ve got limited resources and a sprawling mandate than to buy allies where you can?
All that should underscore how you can’t really address corruption in Afghanistan without first recognizing that we’re part of it. Any foreign force in any foreign country in a position of command is a distorting influence. That doesn’t mean we’re doomed. Nor does it follow that a lack of corruption will follow an American departure. It just means we should recognize our limitations and act accordingly. It may be, pace Cohen, that we shouldn’t really make much of an effort against corruption, lest we give in to a resource-draining mission creep.
And at risk of total contradiction: Cordesman’s paper mentions (but doesn’t really grapple with) the Taliban’s superior ability to adjudicate disputes between people. If one way to mitigate the damage of corruption without mission creep is to focus U.S. development efforts on immediate-impact projects like agriculture (vice road construction or dam-building or such), then wouldn’t it make sense to throw a bunch of legal advisers into Afghan provinces to get courts set up and operating? Not a lot of investment. Targeting a Taliban strength. Maybe it’s a dumb idea, but why not consider it?