Magazine article The American Conservative

Flowers for the Liberators

Magazine article The American Conservative

Flowers for the Liberators

Article excerpt

Five years after beating back the Taliban, rampant corruption and the persistence of the poppy economy make victory in Afghanistan elusive.

IN THE SHADOW of the Iraq misadventure, the Taliban has mounted a brazen comeback in the badlands of Afghanistan. Hostilities have intensified each year since they were ousted five years ago, with even heavier fighting expected in the coming months. Their resurgence is largely a symptom of the sluggish pace of reconstruction, hamstrung when Washington diverted critical money and manpower to Iraq. And the Bush administration's latest military budget, in which Congress is asked to approve $11.8 billion to fortify Afghan security and development-out of some $624.6 billion overall-appears to be more of the same.

But remarkably, this sum amounts to about two-thirds of all defense spending in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion, indicating that administration officials have at least come to acknowledge the high cost of a short attention span. Another 3,500 American troops may also be on their way to reinforce the existing 26,000 on the ground as the Taliban's spring offensive heats up. Still, no amount of shotgun aid can salvage the original mission in the war on terror unless another, more integral factor is confronted: corrupt officials.

While Taliban fighters staging attacks from bases along the lawless border with Pakistan erode the fringe, too many Afghan officials-from Kabul to Kandahar, senior ministers down to local beat police-sabotage the country from the inside. U.S. and European defense officials have already conceded that at least half of all Western aid to Afghanistan does not reach those who need it The U.S. Agency for International Development spent over $3.5 billion on sectors ranging from transport infrastructure to agriculture between 2000-05. But former Interior Minister Ali Jalali estimates only 30 percent was ultimately spent on aid projects. President Hamid Karzai's Anti-Corruption and Bribery Office has operated for over two years with a staff of some 140 people and has yet to make a single conviction. On a recent trip, one senior-level Afghan minister told me that most everyone inside the system knows whose hands are dirty, but no one dares speak out in such a fragile climate.

Karzai's supporters argue that deep-seated factionalism and the fledgling state of government institutions demand unsavory associations to keep the country, or at least the capital, intact. Critics counter that Karzai has jeopardized the government by appointing ex-warlords and other players with shady backgrounds. One such critic is former Interior Minister Jalali, who resigned two years ago after publicly complaining that his power to fire dishonest provincial officials was curtailed. Jalali went on to suggest that he might reveal the names of those officials involved in Afghanistan's booming drug trade, which now accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world's heroin and goes a long way to explaining the incongruously lavish residences around the capital.

President Karzai got it right when he said, "If we fail to eradicate the poppy, the poppy will eradicate us." He wasn't just referring to the dangers of drug addiction. Last year, Afghanistan boasted a record poppy harvest-up 60 percent from the year before-that accounted for about half of gross domestic product thanks to trafficking networks that hustle the top export to Europe and beyond. None of this could happen without a reliable degree of official complicity. According to a damning new UN/World Bank report, drug-related corruption has severely undercut efforts to combat opium production. It is most problematic at the district level; in poppy-growing districts, police chief posts with $60 monthly salaries are said to have gone to bidders paying as much as $100,000.

Officials then extract heavy bribes from wealthier producers. Farmers who cannot pay are forced into debt once their crops are destroyed by slash-and-burn teams. …

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