An Honest Partner in Afghanistan?

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

The New York Times has reported that U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan “seem to search in vain for an honest partner” .  The idea is that with the right honest leadership, the Afghan ship of state can be righted, and the U.S. strategy salvaged.  However, the reason the U.S. will continue to search in vain for honest leadership is that the Afghan system itself is corrupt.  No honest politician would ever be able to attain a position high enough in the Afghan government to institute change.  The systemic nature of the problem is apparent in recently leaked diplomatic cables:

“ A November 2009 cable described the acting governor of Khost Province, Tahir Khan Sabari, as “a refreshing change,” an effective and trustworthy leader. But Mr. Sabari told his American admirers that he did not have “the $200,000-300,000 for a bribe” necessary to secure the job permanently.

Mr. Sabari may be an “effective and trustworthy leader”, but for him to hold any position in the Afghan government he needs massive amounts bribe money.  A similar story revolves around Abdul Sahibi, the mayor of Kabul.  Mr. Sahibi was recently convicted to four years in prison for “massive embezzlement”.  Far from being a victory against corruption,

“a cable from the embassy told a different story. Mr. Sahibi was a victim of “kangaroo court justice,” it said, in what appeared to be retribution for his attempt to halt a corrupt land-distribution scheme.

This anecdote again highlights the systemic nature of the corruption.  Anyone who attempts to counter the system soon finds themselves on the outside looking in, (or in the case of Mr. Sahibi on the inside looking at hard time.)  These stories should caution anyone who thinks the governance problem can be solved by removing Karzai or his close advisors.  Unless substantial reforms are made—reforms done in tandem with reconciliation—the governance problem in Afghanistan is not likely to go away.

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