No Comment — September 8, 2010, 3:52 pm

America’s Corruption Policy in Central Asia in Flux

A series of recent reports highlighting conflict between the United States and local governments in Central Asia over the corruption issue has apparently led to a change in policy by the United States. At the Pentagon, at least, battling corruption is no longer viewed as a priority for U.S. operations in the region. Greg Jaffe reports for the Washington Post:

Military officials in the region have concluded that the Taliban’s insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in some areas and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption could create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit. “There are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure,” said a senior defense official. “But they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban.”

The issue of corruption in Afghanistan has taken on renewed urgency in recent weeks with the arrest of a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai and new questions about Kabul’s commitment to fighting graft. Senior Obama administration officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to root out graft in Afghanistan and have deployed teams of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to assemble corruption cases. The United States has spent about $50 billion to promote reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001.

Significantly, this change apparently has direct application to the Defense Department’s procurement policies:

Recently, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, asked a group of senior officers to study more closely how U.S. reconstruction and logistics contracts are awarded. He also said he planned to publish contracting rules that would help ensure that U.S. spending practices weren’t fueling discontent by excluding influential groups and driving them to support the Taliban insurgency. Such a move would be welcomed by President Karzai, who has argued that foreign money is fueling corruption. Gates also has said that the United States must do more to ensure that its contracting practices aren’t fueling corruption.

In the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times, Dexter Filkins offered an extended take on the same story. Afghanistan has plenty of honest figures, Filkins reports, but they just don’t seem to advance against their dishonest, bribe-taking competition. He cites the case of

Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, who last month took the politically risky course of trying to prosecute senior members of Mr. Karzai’s government. Two weeks ago, Mr. Faqiryar was fired from his job as deputy attorney general — on the order, it appears, of Mr. Karzai himself.

President Karzai, like many in Afghanistan, apparently doesn’t believe that the American anticorruption campaign is very serious. And there’s good reason for the skepticism. For one thing, it seems that every major U.S. anticorruption investigation launched in the Central Asian region seems to run, sooner or later, smack into American-sponsored corruption.

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build. The Central Intelligence Agency has carried that line of argument even further, putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government.

Didn’t Filkins mean to say “disreputable”? Matthew Yglesias puts an interesting gloss on Filkins’s commentary:

a more generous view of the pro-corruption position would be this. From 2002-2008, the war in Afghanistan was an “economy of force” mission. People were given a certain level of resources and told to do the best they could. And improving governance in poorly governed societies is difficult to do. So the calculation was made that given limited resources, simply taking advantage of Afghan officials’ proclivity for corruption by bribing them seemed like a cost-effective alternative to a more ambitious undertaking with higher costs and an uncertain outcome.

This is a key point. There is little basis to question the use of corrupt tools in a combat setting—exploiting human foibles is an effective and time-honored tactic. It can secure vital intelligence and can save lives and treasure. But when the nature of the operation changes from conventional warfare to a counterinsurgency operation in which building the credibility and legitimacy of the new state are key strategic objectives, then this approach may be counterproductive. So the test for the U.S. military now is simple enough—are they serious about helping to establish a legitimate government in Kabul? And what is their attitude, similarly, towards the neighbor regimes that have aligned themselves with the United States in its effort?

One key test will be the award of aviation fuel contracts through the facility at Manas. Since 2002, those contracts, which amount to well over $2 billion, have been held by a highly secretive company run by figures who recently left U.S. government service and who have curiously tight ties both to the Pentagon and to the local governments of the host countries. During my recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, I found reporters from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and several other publications were carefully following this contractor’s footsteps and examining its curious and meticulously obscured connections to those in power. So I expect we’ll be reading more about this shortly. The Manas aviation fuel contracts were put up for rebid, and an award should be announced imminently. How the Pentagon awards the new contracts may be extremely revealing of its tolerance—or even appetite—for corruption.

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