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Afghan Corruption Concerns US Policy Planners

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Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has been roundly criticized in the international community for presiding over a corrupt government. A new report reinforces the perception of widespread corruption in Afghanistan, naming it the second most corrupt country of all those surveyed. That worries American policy makers as they deliberate on the future U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

In Transparency International's just-released 2009 survey of world corruption, Afghanistan was only one step above the bottom rung, ranking 179th out of 180 countries surveyed. According to the group's report, only another war-ravaged state, Somalia, is perceived as being more corrupt.

President Barack Obama is considering whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban. Dispatching more troops would further commit the U.S. to a strategy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The central premise of counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds and weaken popular support for the insurgents.

Georgetown University Security Studies Professor Christine Fair points out corruption concerns policy makers because it undercuts Afghans' support for their government and support among Western nations for the enterprise in Afghanistan.

"I am not someone who goes around thinking this has to be a clean government. That being said, I do think that this counter-insurgency effort is not going to be successful until there is some handle on this corruption, at least to the point that the government can be seen as being effective," said Fair. "And it would not necessarily be as problematic as in some scenarios if it were not for the fact that the Taliban themselves actually market themselves as being the anti-corruption entity."

She adds that until recently, U.S. support for President Hamid Karzai was unquestioning, which may have fostered a climate of corruption.

"The problem is, it is not only the government," continued Fair. "It is just that we have facilitated it and enabled it and we have largely been insouciant about it for the past eight years. I mean, how can we say that we want Karzai to do something about his brother's alleged narcotics activities, while apparently the CIA has been paying the same brother?"

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Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann tells VOA he believes President Karzai to be a decent man, but points out that he does not have a great deal of actual power outside of Kabul and has to be very careful about alienating some people. Ambassador Neumann says the Western nations have painted the Afghan leader into a corner with relentless criticism of his administration's conduct.

"I think, in very general terms, in the last year or two, that the strident public criticism and denunciation from the outside has also been a factor and has in my view has been something of a mistake," said Neumann. "The strident criticism, I think, is not effective, usually does not work. You know, when you shout at your wife in an argument it usually does not get her to agree with you. It is still worse among nations.

Ambassador Neumann, who has just published a memoir of his tenure in Afghanistan, says there are different kinds of corruption and that at least some lower level corruption is to be expected.

"It depends on what you are talking about. If you are talking about some money that bleeds around the edges to get a road paved, but you get the road paved, you get it paved on time, you get it paved to the quality it is supposed to be, frankly it is a nuisance," he added. "If you find that the road is not paved, or that the road is paved but breaks down because the corruption is so bad you do not get standards and quality, then you have got a major problem. This may be a little less purist than the normal view, but I think that it is more realistic."

Some analysts have argued that in some states, government is just so dysfunctional that corruption is actually the only thing that makes governmental machinery work. But Transparency International Director of Policy and Research Robin Hodess, says the idea that corruption works is an illusion.

"Even petty bribery, small bribery, is not a long-term sustainable approach to kind of grease the wheels," said Hodess. "It was always thought that you needed a little bit of something to get the system going. But in fact academic studies have shown that this is wrong-footed and that in the long run by not having a level playing field, by not building systems, by not creating competitive markets you are actually undermining development and you are undermining economic growth and you are taking away the trust of potential investors."

In an attempt to blunt the criticism, President Karzai just announced the creation of a new anti-corruption unit. Robin Hodess says creating a new anti-corruption body is common practice when confronted with corruption, but that the track record of such bodies is mixed.

"They can work, they can be effective. They need to be adequately resourced. They need to be independent," added Hodess. "They need to have full vested powers that are given them, whether it is of investigation or prosecution. Above all they need the political will behind them. And then they can be effective."

Only hours after Mr. Karzai's victory in the tainted election, President Obama welcomed the Afghan leader's pledge to eradicate corruption, but frankly warned the proof of those efforts will be not in words, but in deeds.