Foreign Policy Blogs

The Karzai administration

The country perhaps most associated with corruption in the U.S. popular press today is Afghanistan. Coverage of corruption in Afghanistan has mushroomed since the August presidential election, which observers found to be riddled with fraud. While it is not necessarily a valid assumption that electoral fraud indicates systemic corruption, in this case the accusation is valid. Afghanistan faces rampant corruption at all levels, from petty bribes among ordinary citizens to massive political corruption among elites to drug trafficking and other organized crime.

Corruption in Afghanistan is important not only because it can impact the war whose escalation has just been announced, but because it impacts the credibility of the United States and its allies themselves.  When proof of electoral fraud brought calls for a runoff this fall, the Obama administration pressured President Karzai to participate, as if only a runoff could erase the stain on Karzai’s inevitable second term.  When instead Karzai’s opponent withdrew, the U.S.-led coalition had to defend a government that had not had the opportunity for whatever vindication the runoff might have provided. Meanwhile, the United States’s counterterrorism goals in Afghanistan have led to accusations that it is supporting the very corruption it rails against.

Afghanistan’s tribal structure and underdevelopment should never be an excuse for a permissive attitude to corruption. Ordinary citizens experience real damage when they have to pay extra for basic services or when they lack fundamental infrastructure because funds are skimmed off the top. In fact, the Taliban originally rose to power due to its effective rule of law, including its intolerance of corruption. Corruption can be stopped in Afghanistan, but it will require a genuine commitment from the people at the highest reaches of power – something the Karzai administration has not yet demonstrated.