Fighting Corruption Is a Big Hurdle for Obama's New Afghanistan Plan

U.S. military officials complain that the Karzai government isn't facing up to the issue.

By + More

As President Obama prepares to unveil his way forward in Afghanistan this week, a common refrain echoed by both Pentagon insiders and administration officials in Washington has been the need to boost the involvement of civilian experts along with more military muscle.

And, indeed, such help is on its way. Dubbed the civilian surge, the plan is to increase the presence of U.S. Foreign Service officers and international development experts. This initiative comes after months of warnings that the U.S. military cannot win the war by itself.

But behind the scenes, some senior U.S. military officials are cautioning that a civilian surge will bring little progress until something is done about the pervasive corruption within the Afghan government. Some military officials recently raised the corruption issue with a senior aide to special envoy Richard Holbrooke—President Obama's top troubleshooter for the Afghan war—on a fact-finding mission in Kabul.

Among Afghans, corruption is commonly believed to have become organized and entrenched, involving vast networks with those at the top reaping large rewards. Public positions and government services are seen as being for sale, and police and justice officials are widely viewed as being among the most corrupt of all.

A World Bank report released last year called the situation "dire" and noted that though "much of the public may be willing to tolerate petty corruption on the part of poorly paid government officials trying to make ends meet," it has spiraled out of control. Advisers on the ground note that an hourlong road trip for an average Afghan often involves paying bribes worth a day's wages at a dozen different police checkpoints along the way. To say that the government is losing credibility among the people is an understatement, they add: It is humiliating and enraging them.

Among U.S. officials, there is a widespread belief that despite tough talk against corruption by government leaders, little has been done to change it. As a result, the United States is often seen as bolstering a corrupt regime that cares little for the common Afghan.

This is a source of no little concern among U.S. military officers, who privately add that this failure to take on corruption is making it tough for them to do their job. They are fighting a counterinsurgency war, they point out, which seeks to win the support of the people and, above all, protect them from harm. "We've buried our head in the sand," says one senior U.S. military official in Kabul. He adds that it is not enough to say that cleaning up corruption is something the Afghans have to do for themselves. "In cases where there's no rule of law," he says, "we need to impose it."

As it stands now, the Afghan people "do not welcome the Taliban, but at least it's less corrupt, and they know where they stand," says the official. "With the government, they're not sure if they pay the bribe that someone's not going to outbribe them, or if they pay the judge money to give a small sentence instead of a big one, then someone will pay more money to throw him in jail for life. It's crazy."

But last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pushed back against the notion that his government is not acting against corruption. He said in an interview with PBS's Newshour W ith Jim Lehrer that U.S. officials are "absolutely wrong" when they say the government has failed to fight it. "They know how much we have worked on this question," he said, adding that the government has temporarily suspended crooked judges and imprisoned government officials on the take.

Just what the U.S. military can do to fight corruption is under review. "We can arrest and detain people for corruption—it doesn't mean we have to prosecute them," says the official. "We need to demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law, and we haven't done that before. That's not mission creep," he adds. "That's the mission."