The New York Times' lead story today—that the CIA has been making regular payments to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president's brother who is widely suspected of involvement in the drug trade—is even worse news than it sounds.
Under certain circumstances, such a report might be neither surprising nor unsettling; given the pervasiveness of the drug economy and its links to the Taliban, Karzai frère would certainly be in a position to provide very useful intelligence.
However, given that the Obama administration is formulating a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and given that such a strategy involves propping up the national government in the course of helping the population, the revelation is at best appalling and at worst a harbinger of doom.
The highest-ranking U.S. military officers have said repeatedly that corruption is as big a threat as the Taliban to the stability of Afghanistan and to the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's regime. If the United States is seen as not merely tolerating but abetting high-level corruption, then our soldiers in the field will be seen by the Afghan people as equally untrustworthy; and thus the best-laid counterinsurgency strategy—which depends on winning the hearts and minds of the local population—cannot succeed.
The Times reporters (Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, and James Risen) quote Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior U.S. military intelligence official in Afghanistan, as making pretty much the same point: "If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs," Flynn said, "then we are just undermining ourselves."
This is one reason President Barack Obama has been stretching out his deliberations over how many, if any, more troops to send to Afghanistan: He needs to see what happens in Afghan politics and, more to the point, to use the prospect of troop hikes or troop cuts as a lever to get Hamid Karzai to do the right thing—not just for moral, but for very practical, reasons.
For as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged in Senate hearings last month, if Karzai doesn't settle his political crises and reestablish his legitimacy, no increment of U.S. troops will be able to save his regime or defeat the insurgents.
Karzai's agreement last week to hold a second-round runoff to the fraud-ridden presidential election was a notable first step; had he refused to do so, Obama and the NATO allies would have been well within reason to call the whole thing off. (I don't know what Sen. John Kerry told Karzai to bring him around, but such a threat must have been at least implicit.)
Obama has reportedly assured his military advisers that he won't cut the number of troops in Afghanistan. The subject that he's been discussing with them, in what I'm told are long but very pointed review sessions (the seventh of which takes place Friday), is not so much how many more troops to send but rather what those troops would do—their overriding strategy, their local tactics, their chance of success, and, by the way, just how "success" is defined.