Afghanistan's corruption poses dilemma for U.S. military

By Joshua Partlow
Sunday, January 31, 2010

The meeting in a muggy tent at Kandahar Airfield was dragging on when a lieutenant colonel with the Army Corps of Engineers broke in with an uncomfortable question.

"I'm not sure how to put this," he told some 40 American soldiers and civilians gathered here two weeks ago in the heart of Taliban territory. A commander of the Afghan border police had offered to give the U.S. military prime land at a crossing with Pakistan to build a waiting area for supply vehicles needed for President Obama's troop increase. The same man, U.S. officials believe, earns tens of millions of dollars a year trafficking opium and extorting cargo trucks.

The lieutenant colonel wanted to know: "Does anyone else see this as a problem?"

The silence that followed revealed a basic dilemma the United States now faces in the war in Afghanistan. After eight years of dropping bombs and killing insurgents, the new American military strategy makes explicit the need to fight corruption to build a more legitimate Afghan government. But corruption is a complicated enemy. American officers may want to remove or marginalize shady local officials such as Col. Abdul Razziq, the 33-year-old police commander in the town of Spin Boldak. Yet, when that goal comes up against other imperatives -- maintaining short-term security, gathering intelligence on the Taliban or moving supply trucks over the border -- fighting corruption often loses out.

"What is the focus -- is it security and stability? Or is it governance and anti-corruption? That's a discussion well above me," said Lt. William Clark, an American squadron commander at the border who meets with Razziq three times a week and describes their working relationship as "excellent." Clark told me he has talked to Razziq about the need to curb the drug trade, smuggling and extortion at the border, but in the end it's a matter of priorities. "He looks out for our welfare and our best interests," Clark explained.

Afghan citizens paid an estimated $2.5 billion in bribes last year and rate corruption as a more serious problem than security, according to a recent U.N. report. But individuals such as Razziq play a valuable role for the U.S. military: Commanders say he and his 3,500 armed men have preserved their town as an oasis of calm compared with other parts of southern Afghanistan.

"The dilemmas that we are involved in are extreme," said Todd Greentree, the senior U.S. civilian working with a brigade of American soldiers based in Kandahar. "We are attempting to carry out our policy of connecting people to a regime that has serious legitimacy problems, which builds a contradiction into our strategy."

Indeed, Razziq, who has also been accused of stuffing ballot boxes for President Hamid Karzai in last summer's election -- he denies all the allegations against him -- is hardly the most important example of this dilemma. The dominant power broker in Kandahar, Ahmed Karzai, the president's brother, is widely suspected of involvement in the drug trade. In October, the New York Times reported that he has long been on the CIA payroll for his help in recruiting a paramilitary force and acting as a liaison with the Taliban. Throughout the conflict, a host of warlords and regional strongmen have received support from American forces seeking to maintain order.

When Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, visited Razziq this month, he played the role of polite visitor, requesting help in accelerating the flow of trucks over the border. When asked whether he was concerned about partnering with a suspected drug trafficker, or whether he had proof of Razziq's alleged crimes, McChrystal demurred. "I don't have anything to say on that," he said. "I just don't have the depth of information."

Other U.S. officials regard Razziq -- whose inquisitive gaze and patchy beard hardly seem right for the part of border mob boss -- as a notorious criminal whose behavior corrodes the credibility of Afghan authorities over the long term, even as it may help protect American soldiers in the short term.

"People join the insurgency because of rage at the monopoly of power and resources and the abuses of people like Razziq," said one NATO official who works on corruption issues in Kabul. "He convinces us that he's keeping the road safe, when in fact his actions may be partly responsible for the burgeoning of the insurgency in Kandahar province."

Greentree, a former foreign service officer who has served in five war zones and has written a book on counterinsurgency lessons from the U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1980s, said such calculations force the military to diverge from its stated anti-corruption stance. Besides, he said, American efforts to arrest government officials could be destabilizing and -- considering the malleable state of the Afghan justice system -- a waste of time.

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