Can we bribe our way to victory in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
Sept. 15 2009 6:13 PM

Can We Bribe Our Way to Victory?

How distributing cash—to Karzai, Abdullah, and other bigwigs—could help us win in Afghanistan.

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However, here's the problem: If the Afghan regime is corrupt, and if the Afghan people regard it as illegitimate, then it can't provide "good governance," and it won't be embraced as "an alternative to Taliban rule." And if U.S. and NATO troops are fighting on behalf of this illegitimate regime, then they, too, will be viewed as illegitimate.

Sen. Graham seemed not to grasp the full implications of his questions. When his time was up, he thanked Adm. Mullen for his service and proclaimed, "I believe we can win, and we must"—without explaining, or asking, just what "win" means (Obama and McChrystal must still supply a definition, whatever else they do) and how, under the circumstances, to get there from here.

This quandary is only intensified by Afghanistan's recent presidential election, with its widespread instances of intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and other acts of malfeasance and falsification, most of them committed by agents of the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. If Karzai is declared the winner, as now seems likely, his government—the government on whose behalf we're investing blood and treasure—will be seen as even less legitimate than before.

So what is to be done? Throwing up our hands and getting out is a tempting proposition. But, as Ahmed Rashid notes in the current New York Review of Books, "that would almost certainly result in the Taliban walking into Kabul," from which they could have a base "to 'liberate' large portions of Pakistan," and it would put al-Qaida in "a stronger position to launch global terrorist attacks." (Gen. McChrystal recently acknowledged that al-Qaida currently has little if any presence in Afghanistan, its fighters having moved across the border into more strategically valuable Pakistan. However, if U.S. and NATO forces simply vanished, al-Qaida could move back and forth across the border with impunity.)

Yet nobody with any power or influence in the Obama administration or in Congress is arguing for a total pullout. The question on the table is whether to send in still more troops beyond the 21,000 extra that Obama ordered in the spring. (McChrystal reportedly wants another 40,000.) Proponents of a further buildup charge that skeptics are kidding themselves, that a "middle course" in war is a recipe for defeat and is likely to get still more Americans killed in the process. (It may result in more Afghan casualties, too, since a shortage of ground troops may compel U.S. commanders to launch more airstrikes, some of which will unavoidably kill innocent civilians.)

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But, as the exchange between Adm. Mullen and Sen. Graham suggests, this is a second-order question. An additional 40,000 or even 1 million troops would matter little if the Afghan people regard the government as illegitimate. Sen. Levin's proposal—to send no more troops until after we've trained a lot more Afghan soldiers—begs the question as well, since few Afghans will fight hard for a government they don't believe in.

Whatever President Obama decides on troop levels, the real task at hand is to create legitimacy and build popular support for the Afghan government.

The first step is the most crucial: If Karzai is declared the winner, then the United States needs to take extraordinary measures to push him into forming some sort of unified government with the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah. And extraordinary measures also need to be taken to get Abdullah to go along. (This may be especially difficult, as he has already denounced Karzai's electoral fraud as treasonous.)

By "extraordinary measures" I mean heavy bribery. It does tend to work, at least in the short run. In the spring and summer of 2003, during the early days of the Iraq occupation, this was how Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, pacified much of northern Iraq, including Mosul—by passing around lots of cash taken from Saddam Hussein's bountiful stash. (When the money ran out, Congress failed to appropriate more, at least not as an uncontrollable commanders' discretionary fund. Whether by coincidence or not, Mosul fell apart soon after.) Similarly, during the surge and the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province, many former insurgents joined the "Sons of Iraq," and thus the coalition cause, thanks in part to the inducement of a regular paycheck.

As Mullen testified yesterday, and as many observers have pointed out, the corruption in Afghanistan extends way beyond the central government in Kabul, into many of the provinces. Serious thought should be given to bribing several governors and other key figures as well.

A government is seen as legitimate when it fills its constituents' needs or desires. For certain constituents, such as officials and tribal chiefs, a barrelful of money fits the bill—and could ease the path for letting us, or the central government, pursue more broadly appealing programs, such as building roads, providing jobs, and sowing crops other than poppies.

The idea may seem outrageous, until one considers that we're currently spending about $4 billion a month on this war. A discreet and well-planned bribery program would cost pennies on the dollar—a mere rounding error in a calculation of the budget.

Without legitimacy, without the bare-bones foundation of popular support, more troops will have little ultimate effect. If someone has better ideas for promoting legitimacy, let's hear them.