Spearhead Analysis – 13.07.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Abstract: A first in series of its ‘lessons learned’ reports. SIGAR examines the risks of corruption to the US mission in Afghanistan. “Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the US experiences in Afghanistan” published in September 2016 aims to highlights the US perception of corruption in Afghanistan, the evolution in policies aimed to tackle the issue, and the effectiveness of those policies. The report also offers policy recommendations for legislative and executive branches of the US government.
Rampant corruption is often dubbed as the second existential threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan. Multiple sources note that corruption has risen to unprecedented levels post 2001 Bonn political dispensation. The crux of the problem is embedded in US reliance on notorious warlords and other strongmen to attain the prime objective of counter-terrorism & counterinsurgency; an approach that has largely served as counterproductive to the 2nd objective of ‘stabilizing Afghanistan’. The collusion of two approaches has resulted in a complex, web of vertically integrated, systematic corruption, permeating all levels of society. Corruption is a broad based term, encapsulating multiple forms; in a top-down approach, this report focuses on corruption driven by notorious networks, patronage networks and nepotism.
The issue of corruption becomes more consequential because it now stands to hinder the overall effectiveness of the first objective i.e.: US counterinsurgency missions. The legitimization of notorious powerbroker networks in positions of power has diminished rule of law, prompted illicit economies and exacerbated socio-economic grievances. The report notes that such outcomes have created opportunities for terror-financing, fueled support for insurgency—which at times transcend the ‘ideological support’ and are instead driven by search of parallel justice and other socio-economic reasoning. Thus, creating a perpetual war loop. Furthermore, the most far reaching consequence of this corruption has been on the critical security organs of Afghanistan.
As the report notes:
“The initial design of Operation Enduring Freedom was aimed at establishing a light US military footprint in Afghanistan to defeat Al-Qaeda, by using limited troop, combined with airpower and partnering with local warlords—who commanded private militias, some of whom were collectively known as the Northern Alliance.
Scholar Antonio Giustozzi assessed that of the first 32 provincial governors appointed in 2002 by Karzai interim government, “at least twenty were militia commanders, warlords or strongmen.
The NSC pursued a “warlord strategy. According to a former senior DOD advisor, “The warlord strategy [was] essentially to engineer a series of deals with the warlords in which they would agree to demobilize their private armies in exchange for some kind of political role in the government—provided they would operate by the rules of the new Afghanistan.
The problem of malign powerbrokers serving in government was compounded by the 2005 parliamentary elections. An Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) report highlighted how warlords and criminals were legitimized by their election to the National Assembly. The National Assembly included “40 commanders still associated with armed groups, 24 members who belong to criminal gangs, 17 drug traffickers, and 19 members who face serious allegations of war crimes and human rights violations.
In addition to the warlords, a newer class of politically connected strongmen emerged. These men were not field commanders or former mujahedin, but rather gained power and wealth through their connection to the international community, especially the United States. They mobilized their own militias and commanded strong loyalty from the army or police, while benefiting from access to foreign militaries and aid agencies. At the same time, these strongmen strengthened their links to the drug trade, smuggling, and criminal networks.
However, in December 2006, the U.S. Army issued COIN manual. This publication aimed to offer principles and guidelines for forces fighting insurgencies in Afghanistan. It repeatedly warned that corruption threatens counterinsurgency efforts.
In 2009, the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC), a U.S. unit formed to track and stop terrorist financing, revealed an interdependent web of connections between corrupt Afghan officials, criminals, drug traffickers, and insurgents.
The rise in Afghan insecurity had occurred despite a near-doubling of U.S. military forces between late 2004 and late 2008.
At the unveiling of the new Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) strategy in March 2009, President Obama reiterated that the core goal of the United States was to defeat al-Qaeda in AF-Pak, and develop effective Afghan government along with “increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces. At the heart of the strategy was “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency”
For the U.S. military, the notion that corruption undermined the Afghan state’s legitimacy went to the core of COIN doctrine. the United States created ad hoc U.S. and ISAF entities to respond in different ways to the challenge of corruption, but successes were often hindered due to anti-reformist power holders.”
Combatting corruption was the cornerstone of the current NUG leaders campaign days, but both leaders also remain indebted to their own set of corrupt elites. Though certain initiatives like MCTF and Anti-Corruption Justice Court have been spurred by the NUG—they have largely been unable to disrupt these corrupt networks.
The drawdown of US forces, corruption, political infighting, continues to raise uncertainties’.
It has been noted that the insurgency has also been regaining momentum alongside the rise of terrorist organizations such as IS-K.
The fall of Kunduz in September 2015, is termed as one of the most significant victories by the insurgents—Another UN report notes that “many Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) units, led by weak or corrupt commanders, did not fight, and threw down their arms and ran away.” Corruption has weakened the readiness and effectiveness of Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP).
Presently, many remain skeptical of the purpose of the new US military approach likely backed by a ‘mini surge’, when peak levels have not resulted in decisive wins. Recalling General Petraeus’s– once made– frustrated statement, claiming that corruption is a part of Afghan culture, perhaps the US sees its own limitations in revamping Afghanistan from top to bottom. The new approach could be aimed to tackle one aspect at the time. Apart from possible increase in use of decisive force, a focus could be on cleaning up, strengthening and remodeling the ANA.
However, as the US reviews its Afghan strategy, dismantling the interlinked nexus of corruption and terrorism—should be prioritized to end the war loop. Appropriate political solutions, based on the will of the Afghan people should be devised to enhance scope of good governance and accountability.