By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 1:32 PM
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan are adopting a strategy that increasingly places the priority on fighting the Taliban even if that means tolerating some corruption.
Military officials in the region have concluded that the Taliban's insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in some areas and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption could create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.
"There are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure," said a senior defense official. "But they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban."
The issue of corruption in Afghanistan has taken on renewed urgency in recent weeks with the arrest of a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai and new questions about Kabul's commitment to fighting graft. Senior Obama administration officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to root out graft in Afghanistan and have deployed teams of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to assemble corruption cases. The United States has spent about $50 billion to promote reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001.
It was not immediately clear whether the White House, the State Department and law enforcement agencies share the military's views, which come at a critical time for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. After an eight-month buildup, the 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines that President Obama ordered to this country are almost entirely in place, allowing U.S. and Afghan forces to conduct sweeps of Taliban strongholds and detain insurgent leaders at the highest levels of the nearly nine-year-long war, military officials said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited two U.S. Army units on Friday that had been hit with tough losses in recent days as they cleared insurgents from areas in and around this southern Afghanistan city, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the site of some of the heaviest fighting for U.S. and Afghan forces.
"It has been a tough week for you," Gates told soldiers from an Army battalion that had lost seven soldiers this week. "Unfortunately, there are going to be more tough weeks ahead."
The Kandahar campaign reflects the breadth of the problems that the United States faces throughout Afghanistan and explains why some U.S. officials are reluctant to take too hard a line on Afghan corruption. "Kandahar is not just a Taliban problem; it is a mafia, criminal syndicate problem," the senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "That is why it is so complicated. But clearly the most pressing threat is the Taliban."
Some military and civilian advisers to the U.S.-led command in Kabul argue for a comprehensive effort to root out graft and other official abuses, contending that government corruption and ineffectiveness have prompted many Afghans to support the insurgency. "You can't separate the fight against corruption from the fight against the Taliban," one of the advisers said. "They are intimately linked."
But U.S. officials and defense analysts say that challenging local power brokers and criminal syndicates, many of which depend on U.S. reconstruction contracts and ties to the Afghan government for support, would likely add to the unrest in southern Afghanistan and produce a higher U.S. casualty rate. "Putting an end to these patronage networks would not come cheaply," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.
By contrast, allowing some graft among Afghan power brokers on the condition that they agree to limit their take and moderate predatory activities, such as their use of illegal police checkpoints, could promote near-term improvements, Biddle said. "We spend a lot more money in Afghanistan than the narcotics trade," he said. "A lot of money that funds these networks comes from us. So we can essentially de-fund these networks, taking away their contracts."
The military's strategy on corruption appears to more broadly apply conclusions reached earlier this year by top military officers in Kandahar. Some diplomats and military officers had recommended the removal of Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as the chairman of the Kandahar province council, but Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, eventually concluded that there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing and that ousting him could leave a power vacuum in the area.
Instead, the military has sought to limit the amount of money flowing to Ahmed Wali Karzai by awarding lucrative contracts for supplies and services to firms that he and his relatives do not control.
Recently, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, asked a group of senior officers to study more closely how U.S. reconstruction and logistics contracts are awarded. He also said he planned to publish contracting rules that would help ensure that U.S. spending practices weren't fueling discontent by excluding influential groups and driving them to support the Taliban insurgency. Such a move would be welcomed by President Karzai, who has argued that foreign money is fueling corruption.
Gates also has said that the United States must do more to ensure that its contracting practices aren't fueling corruption.
The growing understanding that military commanders will have to work with some corrupt officials and warlords hasn't led them to abandon time-consuming efforts to build local government capacity. In areas where U.S. and Afghan forces have driven out the Taliban, they are working with locals to assemble councils made up of elders that will help decide how reconstruction money is spent and serve as a check on government abuses.
"That representative council is important because that is really the link between the people and the district leadership," said Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Even building effective local councils will take time in areas where U.S. forces have little to no knowledge of the key players and power relationships.
U.S. forces are only now beginning to push into areas that have had little or no American presence in recent years and to develop an intimate knowledge of the players and power relationships.
"We have never had the granular understanding of local circumstances in Afghanistan that we achieved over time in Iraq," Petraeus said this week. "One of the key elements in our ability to be fairly agile in our activities in Iraq during the surge was a pretty good understanding of who the power brokers were in local areas and how the systems were supposed to work and how they really worked. . . . That enabled us enormously."
firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Washington contributed to this report.