By Sreeram Chaulia
Fresh revelations from unnamed quarters of the United States government that Mohammad Zia Salehi, an allegedly corruption-tainted aide of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is a recipient of payments from the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have turned the spotlight on the gap between the rhetoric and the realities of foreign military occupation.
While Washington has made “good governance” in Afghanistan a pillar of its revamped war strategy, it is evident that the needs of prosecuting a highly unpopular war are defeating this objective.
According to a report in the New York Times, Salehi – the administrative head of Afghanistan’s National Security Council who is said to have leveraged connections to the president anescaped anti-corruption proceedings – has been on the CIA payroll “for many years”.
The same account cites a US official defending the general practice of American intelligence agencies paying Afghan officials “even if they turn out to be corrupt or unsavory”. Such tactics are apparently imperative because Afghanistan is “a tough place” and the US needs intelligence through any means, however destabilizing the impact of an occupying power systematically nurturing kleptocrats.
A parallel drama of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces relying on brutal de facto local militia “authorities” for convoy security and ancillary functions, even though such shady Afghan allies are obstacles to ushering in the rule of law, has also been playing out.
The magnified political status attained by notorious small-time private army bosses like Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan province is the result of their selection by NATO as partners for oiling the Western war machine.
Figures like Khan and Salehi are bankrolled by the US on ostensible grounds of pragmatic necessity in a quicksand-like war where legally mandated entities and agencies for specific sectors like security and intelligence are either unable to deliver or cannot be depended on.
American handlers of Afghan money launderers and drug kingpins have no compunctions in maintaining these relationships since all is fair in a war in which the US military
is under pressure to notch up some concrete successes to justify the “surge”.
Filling the pockets of unscrupulous Afghans and elevating their unconstitutional weight in the nation’s fragmented polity may not even be fetching the touted benefits that the US Army and intelligence agencies claim. Loyalty is one phenomenon that the US has not found in this war, as many of its Afghan backdoor sources and confidants are known to also have affinities with the Taliban.
The double-agent and double-crossing predicaments confronting the Americans in Afghanistan and Pakistan is one principal reason why they have failed to zero in on the highest-value al-Qaeda targets despite nearly a decade of war.
Candid acknowledgements about wheeling and dealing with Afghan devils, for whatever they are worth, by insiders in the US security apparatus also demonstrate how different sections and sub-layers of the American state are working at cross purposes in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, accords maximum priority to battling corruption in the Karzai regime. The Washington Post contends that Petraeus has “intensified efforts to uncover the scope and mechanics of the pervasive theft, graft and bribery in the Afghan government”.
The Major Crimes Task Force, which briefly arrested Salehi in July as part of a wider investigation into the siphoning of billions of dollars by presidential staff members and bureaucrats for patronage and political alliances, was itself created with the assistance of US intelligence, drug enforcement, justice, and police experts.
A large congressional constituency in the US also champions the “war on graft” in Afghanistan as the best formula for defeating the Taliban. Cognizant of the political backlash from war-weary voters, American lawmakers have increasingly turned to the “governance” track as a less costly but more lasting intervention that could stabilize Afghanistan. Some anti-corruption members of congress have even voted to partially freeze US aid to Afghanistan unless Karzai’s robber baron state mends its ways.
These people, who desire to fix Afghanistan’s severe maladministration, belong to a “nation-building” school of thought that assumes the American goal to be shoring up and cleaning fledgling institutions. Grandiose dreams of remaking Afghanistan anew as a haven of moderation and democracy that is answerable to the masses are, however, being undermined by the “operations men” in uniform and mufti (civilian clothes) whose ultimate mandate is to beat back Taliban advances by hook or crook.
Dovetailing this pronounced divide in strategy is the current airing by top military brass of disagreements with the Barack Obama administration on a schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Petraeus’ comments that he did not take charge of the war simply to oversee a “graceful exit” have been followed by the oblique critique by General James Conway, the commandant of the US Marine Corps, that Obama was “talking to several audiences at the same time” by drawing up an early plan for bringing troops back home.
The impression that the US president opposes prolonging the occupation gained adherents after the deposed General Stanley McChrystal’s controversial job-costing barb that Obama “didn’t seem very engaged” in the war effort. Some observers are even counting the scant number of times Obama utters the word “Afghanistan” in speeches in comparison to “health care” or “financial regulation”, insinuating that his resolve to keep on fighting is weak.
Internal schisms within branches and bureaus of the US state over how to wage the war and when to pull out have reached an advanced stage. Government figures tattle before the press with the aim of scuttling agendas of their colleagues who represent rival coteries. The outcome of this shadowboxing and scandal-planting is a war theater with its own “friendly fire” wars among the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House.
Blaming Obama for sitting inactively on a badly divided house or for lacking warrior spine are superficial reactions to the policy mess that prevails. The deeper problem facing the US in Afghanistan is that long military occupations intrinsically open up cracks of doubt, inconsistency and contradiction inside the invading power’s political system.
Empire’s effects inevitably boomerang onto the home turf. The resultant second thoughts and policy confusion not only demoralize occupying armies but also destroy the potential of occupied societies to construct accountable institutions of their own.
As Afghanistan struggles to emerge with a viable state structure that meets people’s expectations, routinely castigating Karzai and greedy politicians is reductionist and at best a partial explanation. The sins of occupation must be counted.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.