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  • Roland Paris

Is Corruption the Cost of Saving Afghanistan?

Globe & Mail It was fitting that last weekend’s international donors’ conference on Afghanistan took place in Tokyo: The event resembled the city’s famous kabuki theatre, with its ritualized drama of grand gestures and hidden meanings. The centrepiece of the meeting was a pledge by donors, including Canada, for $16-billion in development aid to Afghanistan over the next four years in exchange for the Kabul government’s commitment to fight corruption, among other things. In fact, there is virtually no chance that the Afghan government will tackle corruption – and everyone knows it. President Hamid Karzai has made similar commitments for years, yet not a single high-level official has been convicted for graft, in a country whose public sector ranks as the third-most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. The unspoken reality is that the United States, which drives international policy on Afghanistan, appears to have resigned itself to this kleptocracy. Back in 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama tried to pressure the Afghan leader into tackling corruption, but his efforts served only to worsen relations between the two countries, and he soon backed off. Then, Washington was “surging” troops into Afghanistan in a counterinsurgency campaign that sought to arrest the Taliban’s momentum and jump-start Afghan governance reform. Today, the much-reduced U.S. objective is to train and equip as many Afghan security forces as possible before the expected departure of foreign combat troops in 2014. The United States will almost certainly keep several thousand troops in the country after that date, primarily to continue training Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations. The hope seems to be that this residual U.S. force, plus ongoing international financial support for the Afghan government and its security apparatus, will be sufficient to avert two disconcerting scenarios: a sweeping military victory by the Taliban, or the fragmentation of the Afghan government and its security forces into the same regional and ethnic factions that fought a devastating civil war in the 1990s.

Indeed, the history of the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 now appears to be required reading in U.S. policy circles. Few expected Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed president, Mohammad Najibullah, to survive after Russian troops departed. Yet, he successfully recast himself as a nationalist leader and fought off some enemies while buying off others, thanks largely to the roughly $300-million a month he continued to receive from the Soviets. His regime fell only after the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the flow from Moscow. Without money to dole out, Najibullah’s army and patronage networks quickly dissolved and older factions reorganized. This was the prelude to civil war.

This history looms large today. Dexter Filkins, formerly a Kabul-based correspondent for The New York Times, recently returned to Afghanistan and confirmed what many others have been saying: The country’s major parties are quietly rearming in anticipation of a collapse of the Afghan government, or a return to civil war, after 2014.

Against this backdrop, Washington seems to have decided that a kleptocratic Afghan government is better than no Afghan government. In two recent meetings – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago in May, and the Tokyo donors’ conference – the United States and others, including Canada, have signalled that they will continue to provide billions of dollars in development and military aid after 2014, while “training, advising and assisting” Afghan security forces.

The message to Afghanistan’s parties and factions seems clear: “We will continue to support and subsidize the Afghan government for many years. There is no need to prepare for a possible collapse. Remain calm.” It’s not clear whether Afghans find this message adequately convincing.

For taxpayers in donor countries, it is an even tougher sell, particularly at a time of fiscal retrenchment. Why should we continue to provide billions of dollars to a regime and country where corruption is not just a problem but an integral part of the governing system?

Our governments have difficulty answering this question truthfully. For them, losing enormous sums of money to graft may be an acceptable price to avoid an even costlier repetition of history.

And so, we get the kabuki theatre of a donors’ conference extolling anti-corruption measures that have no realistic chance of being implemented.

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