The Washington Post reports that U.S. military commanders in southern Afghanistan are adopting a strategy that increasingly places the priority on fighting the Taliban even if it means tolerating some corruption. According to the 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.
These conclusions seem so obvious that a report that the U.S. has just reached them reads like parody. How could it not be the case, in a war, that fighting the enemy takes priority over fighting corruption? And how could our military not have understood that “driving out corruption” in a place like Afghan might leave a vacuum?
I don’t think neo-conservatism is the culprit. Promoting democracy is one thing; insisting that, in the midst or a war, that a third world government be laregly free of corruption is quite another. The preoccupation with fighting corruption is more neo-Boy Scout than neo-conservative.
I suspect that the source of the preoccupation lies somewhere in modern counter-insurgency theory, perhaps at its intersection with liberalism. For it is the Obama administration that reportedly has made rooting out corruption in Afghanistan such a priority, to the point of sending FBI and DEA teams to assemble corruption cases.
In fact, the turn towards fighting the enemy, instead of our corrupt allies described above comes from the military, not the politicians and bureaucrats. According to the Post, “it was not immediately clear whether the White House, State Department, and law enforcment agencies share the military’s view.”
The premise of the neo-Boy Scout obsession with corruption is that if leaders of the central government or major provincial outposts are corrupt, we will be unable to win the hearts and minds of the locals. For example, our attempts to do so through aid projects will be thwarted because much of the money finds its way into the pockets of leaders.
If rooting out corruption in places like Afghanistan is a prerequisite to successful counter-insurgency, we should rethink our willingness to undertake long-term military projects in places like Afghanistan. But I doubt that that it is a prerequisite. The Iraq surge succeeded in its primary objectives of turning the tide against al Qaeda and heading off a civil war without, as far as I can tell, substantially eliminating corruption in Iraq. As I understand it, we succeeded in part because we took the village and tribal elders as we found them, and proved that we were serious about fighting the enemy. We did not attempt to remake them in our image.
The same approach seems to hold the greatest promise in Afghanistan. As one senior defense official explained the situation, “there are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of these leaders aren’t necessarily pure.” On the other hand, “they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban.”
If we want to make the kind of progress President Obama is demanding over the next year, we had better focus on going after the Taliban and more or less forget about purifying Afghan leaders. To the extent the Obama administration stands in the way of this approach even as it imposes de facto timetables, it is all but guaranteeing that we will not succeed.
SCOTT adds: An Army colonel responds to this post:
In your post you ask if military commanders are just now coming to the conclusion that fighting the enemy is more important that fighting corruption. As an officer with multiple tours in Iraq (although none in Afghanistan), I can almost guarantee that is not the case.
At a tactical level – Division, Brigade, Battalion, Company – where the bullets are flying and people get hurt, there is nothing more important than defeating the enemy. I can think of numerous events from Iraq which I either observed personally or heard second hand where we looked the other way while dealing with a friendly military or civilian leader. It’s also a cultural issue. What we call ‘corruption’ was simply the Iraqi way of doing business for most if not all of Saddam Hussein’s tenure. My guess is Afghanistan is not only not better than Iraq in this respect, but probably an order of magnitude worse.
What this report probably represents is either a response to or a pre-emptive strike against a non-DoD entity (most likely State) and their desire to have a little bit more say in the military decision-making process at a high level. In Iraq – and I have no reason to doubt Afghanistan is any different – most State Department rode a desk and rarely if ever left the FOB, or when they did, it was under highly armed escort whose sole duty was to protect and transport them. So not only was their focus different in the traditional DoS/DoD way, but they took their safety for granted in the sense that they didn’t have to go through the time and effort of providing it for themselves. As a result, and perhaps a but unfairly, they were looked at by the military (again, at the tactical level) with a bit of derision. Their input during meetings was welcome of course, but when military orders were written or issued and when important, direction-changing meetings were held, they weren’t involved in the process or even in the room.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like someone outside of DoD decided that the military wasn’t taking them seriously enough and wanted to push an anti-corruption agenda. This would be the military’s response, saying they’ll accept risk on corruption in favor of force protection. And my guess is this report would only be relevant to maybe 100 out of all the US forces in that country. Again, at the tactical level they have a very good idea what they need to focus on and flying bullets have a way of clarifying that focus real quick.
The father of a Marine serving in Iraq comments:
Well, my son is just an enlisted grunt in the Corps, not a Colonel in the Army. That likely makes him better suited to discuss the issue as he has been in too many combat and terrorist situations. As a Haditha Marine, my son saw the worst of the political corruption during the Iraq conflict and the resultant compliance with concocted rules of engagement forced on the US military. These rules resulted in complex filing and reviews of reports of each engagement with the “enemy” in which civilians were involved. It was the Army that negotiated these rules of engagement with Iraqi politicians.
We’d love to hear from readers serving in Afghanistan.