Are the U.S. and Hamid Karzai on the same side in fighting Afghan corruption?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

CORRUPTION IN Afghanistan is a serious problem that could make it impossible for the government of Hamid Karzai ever to gain ascendancy over the Taliban. On that virtually everyone in the country agrees -- including, notably, Mr. Karzai. Mr. Karzai is not comparable to Ngo Dinh Diem, Ferdinand Marcos or other venal American-backed autocrats of the Cold War era; nor is his government hopelessly compromised. Mr. Karzai is and has always been an Afghan nationalist -- one who has tried to insist on Afghan sovereignty; who objects to Western practices that have encouraged corruption; and who, above all, bridles at being publicly lectured or treated as an adversary by the Obama administration.

There's no question that members of the Afghan leader's family have been plausibly accused of improperly enriching themselves and that he has protected them, as well as other political allies, from Western-backed investigations. This summer the president intervened to have a senior aide released after he was arrested, and he ordered new controls placed on two U.S.-backed anti-corruption task forces. But the West isn't blameless in this. In its attempt to fight Afghan corruption, the Obama administration has repeated an error it has made in its political and military policies -- of working against, rather than through, the Afghan president and his government. The anti-corruption teams, which were trained and mentored by officials from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, acted against senior officials without informing Mr. Karzai. The late-night arrest of his aide, Mohammed Zia Salehi, reportedly took him by surprise.

Wisely, the administration is reconsidering this approach. Afghanistan commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, who managed to forge a strong working relationship with an Iraqi government that was also plagued by endemic corruption, has taken a different tack. This week he announced new guidelines governing the flow of U.S. funds to Afghan contractors in an attempt to broaden the pool of contractors and avoid funding corrupt powerbrokers. This was a reform proposed by Mr. Karzai, who has also tried to stop Western payments to private security forces, which have been another source of corruption.

In an interview with ABC News, Gen. Petraeus praised Mr. Karzai's corruption-fighting efforts and added that U.S. measures should not "be seen to threaten the sovereignty of the Afghan government."

The U.S. commander knows that his counterinsurgency campaign cannot succeed if Afghans are preyed upon by local police and government officials or if they believe Mr. Karzai's government has been delegitimized by criminality. But Mr. Karzai can and must be enlisted in the battle.

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