Karzai’s international backers have made no secret of what their priorities for his new administration were: transfer of security responsibilities, reconciliation, economic development, relations with the neighbours, and corruption, corruption, corruption. They were well served by Karzai’s inaugural speech: everything was included – reason for a (small) collective sigh of relief. Another potential confrontation, with its awkwardness at home, averted. These were the words, now the deeds. But there is something slightly wrong with all these public displays of toughness and the calls on Karzai to clean up his government.
After years of bemusement over how the international community has stood by pretending that there was a functioning government even when there was not, and how it closed its eyes to immense wastage of money and abuse of power; and after years of arguing that there should be accountability and consequences for unacceptable behaviour, that there should be more pressure and oversight; I am starting to feel strangely uneasy with what is going on now.
Maybe if you have only a distant relationship with a country and with its leader, maybe then it is okay to stand back, fold your arms and start shouting: “Your government is outrageously corrupt. We find this unacceptable. It bothers us too. You need to get rid of the people who are responsible for this.” Maybe if it was only up to Karzai to fix this, you could sit back and say: “We want to see you take serious steps to solve your country’s most complicated problems – the ones that we haven’t been able to tackle up till now – and otherwise we will start pulling back”.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no question that the Karzai government is in urgent need of reform and fundamental change. Karzai and most of his friends have not been serious, at all, about establishing an accountable and law-based administration. But they have not gone down this road alone.
In a recent RFE/RL comment, Tanya Goudsouzian and Helena Malikyar rightly point out that all Karzai’s ‘suddenly “unsavoury” associates’, as well as many of the high ranking officials who were not warlords but who were highly corrupt, have received American protection and financial and political support. Somehow we’re in this together. Both sides need to clean up their act (and preferably drop all talk of light-footprint governing through local warlords).
In the last few days there have been several excellent articles illustrating this fact and providing details of the complex and multilayered relations involved in what is often simply referred to as “corruption”.
Matthieu Aikins, in his must-read article The Master of Spin Boldak, illustrates how key personalities on the government’s side can simultaneously play the roles of, in this case, border police chief, tribal militia commander, head of a smuggling network, attacker of rival tribes, and indispensable partner of the local ISAF forces. The international military concede they are ‘completely aware that there are a number of illicit activities being run out of that border station‘ but are unsure how to deal with it, other than accept it as a fact of life.
Pratap Chattarjee (An Anatomy of a Culture of Corruption) describes the ‘tale of the “reconstruction” of Kabul’s electricity supply (…) a classic story of how foreign aid has often served to line the pockets of both international contractors from the donor countries and the local political elite’. It focuses on two companies – Zahid Walid and Ghazanfar – closely linked to VP Fahim and President Karzai and involved in highly lucrative and wasteful contracts, including the USAID funded Tarakheil power plant (reportedly propagated by a US Ambassador as an alternative to the more cost-effective power-line from Uzbekistan and a potential boost for Karzai´s popularity in the run-up to the 2009 elections).
Finally, in an article misleadingly titled How the US funds the Taliban, Aran Roston untangles what he calls ‘the insider dealings that determine who wins and who loses in Afghan business.‘ The businesses he looks at are involved in what can neutrally be described as logistics and security (trucking services and convoy protection), and include the Watan Group, Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group, all run by the Karzai family; NCL Holding, headed by the Defence Minister´s son Hamid Wardak; and Afghan International Trucking, headed by a nephew of General Baba Jan.
All three articles touch on the uncomfortable reality that in the last eight years international contractors, policy makers and military have become part of an intricate patronage and racketeering network, sometimes as hostage, sometimes as unwitting contributors, but often as an active party seeking to further their perceived economic, political or security interests.
If the internationals want to be taken seriously on the issue of corruption they should start thinking about what kind of serious and public steps they can take, to show they are dealing with it.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020