Petraeus was impressed with their analysis but found their proposals impractical. First, he couldn’t simply bypass Karzai. One of his strategic goals was to help stabilize Afghanistan. Overhauling the districts’ governing boards and transferring power to new officials—who may themselves just be a new array of warlords—was hardly a recipe for stability. Second, the plan would undermine another strategic goal—protecting the Afghan population. The local officials who were taking bribes and extorting merchants were also helping out with local security, sometimes guarding convoys of NATO supply trucks. If the cash spigot were shut off, they might let the Taliban attack those trucks, maybe even join in.
The group’s report did spur Petraeus to lay down some new guidelines on contracting for goods and services, to minimize—or at least to provide a means for auditing—corruption in that realm. He also brought in the U.S. Army’s most creative one-star general, H.R. McMaster, to head up a massive anti-corruption unit, interviewing hundreds of officials and citizens, mapping the networks of criminal patronage, drawing up a list of tasks and several bills of indictments. The campaign had some effect, but the structure of the corruption—the networks and the incentives that made up the Afghan regime itself—stayed intact.
This whole exercise laid bare two important facts about the war. First, the U.S. and Afghan governments did not share the same interests. The American strategy required Karzai to reform, in order to enhance his legitimacy and thus dry up support for the Taliban; Karzai’s strategy was to stay in power, which required payoffs to a network of cronies.
Second, because of this tension, the American strategy’s two goals—to secure the Afghan people from the Taliban and to help reform the Afghan government—were themselves incompatible, or at least in constant tension with each other. For instance, the first goal sometimes required us to pay local security forces, i.e., warlords. This boosted corruption and alienated the population, which worked against the second goal.
This was known all along, certainly by McChrystal and Petraeus, who saw the dynamic of corruption—how it was interwoven with the nature and structure of Karzai’s regime—as their biggest challenge.
But now the Times story tells us that the CIA was stiffening this challenge by providing Karzai with the money to keep the network rolling.
The money was self-defeating in another way. By seeing how much money the Americans were willing to pay just to keep him in power and to support the U.S. mission, Karzai must have inferred that the war was at least as important to them as it was to him—maybe more so. As a result, when McChrystal, Petraeus, and other top U.S. officials made noises about reform, he had good reason to doubt their sincerity. Their own CIA, after all, was bankrolling the corruption; they couldn’t be too serious in their demands to end it.
Which raises a question that some congressional committee might want to probe: How deep, how high, did the complicity with Afghan corruption go? Was this a CIA rogue operation, or did everyone know about it, and, if the latter, did anyone in a position of power see—or say anything about—the contradiction between pushing for reform and abetting corruption? How seriously did the people in charge take this war?