Corruption undermines counterinsurgency

The West cannot win Afghan hearts and minds under current conditions.

Uttam Das

President Barack Obama has reiterated in his recent tour to Afghanistan that his administration will start to withdraw U.S. troops from that country as early as it is appropriate. Last winter, when the president announced that 30,000 additional troops willbe sent to Afghanistan, he declared that troops would begin withdrawal in mid-2011. Nonetheless, it is not clear when substantial withdrawal will happen, or how. Nor is it clear what would happen on the ground if the U.S. and NATO troops are withdrawn, or what the impact on the greater region, including Pakistan, would be. Realities on the ground are not suggestive of any significant improvement despite nearly a decade of military engagement in the region. Though foreign aid has been pouring into Afghanistan, the contribution is failing to make any improvement to the living conditions of the common people. That is true for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the tribal leaders, who play important roles in their respective communities, have started to communicate their anguish openly to the national government. Deteriorating security and increased poverty have made appealing to the federal government necessary. According to available information, out of the 28 million people in Afghanistan, 35 percent are reported to be below the poverty line. Roadways have broken down, discrimination is on the rise and justice has deteriorated in recent times. As Staffan de Mistura, the special representative of Afghanistan for the U.N. Secretary General, has said, Afghans are now facing two major issues: a lack of security and corruption. Given the situation of deteriorating law and order, the production of narcotics like hashish has increased in the country. An estimated 15,000 to 35,000 tons of hashish is produced annually in Afghanistan, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported recently. So what is happening with the foreign aid sent to help impoverished Afghans? According to related observers, aid is not reaching the people who need it. Corruption is making heavy the pockets of influential Afghan military and civil officials. According to Afghan radio journalist Najibullah Sharifi, who is now visiting the United States as a Fulbright Scholar, the foreign aid allocated to his country is not serving its intended purpose: to provide income opportunities and livelihood options for Afghans to survive. The corruption is rampant among the various organs of the government who are supposed to serve the people. Even the recent presidential election was marred with controversy, reportedly rigged in favor of incumbent President Hamid Karzai. This corruption has contributed to poverty, violations of human rights and impedes access to justice. This impact has been felt most heavily by children and women. According to Sharifi, the U.S. military should also examine how civil society organizations could be strengthened and wage war against corruption and other social vices to bring benefits to the common people. The same also holds true for Pakistan. A U.S. State Department-funded Humphrey Fellow from Pakistan says that from military and foreign aid only senior Pakistani military and civil officers are seeing benefits. This has contributed to the militarization of the society, given ongoing conflicts among the various tribal groups. Sharifi observes that military intervention alone cannot solve AfghanistanâÄôs problems unless there are simultaneous measures to reduce poverty, build up infrastructure and ensure security. Against the backdrop of growing poverty and vulnerabilities in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida are gaining ground. According to Sharifi, U.S. and Afghan authorities must ensure that there are measures for curbing corruption and opportunities for income. People need hope for their future, he said. Also, the United States should take into account the emergence of radical idealism in other countries, including in the region of South Asia. This trend is a clear threat to national security and stability. According to recent reports, both the Taliban and al-Qaida have been trying to spread their radical ideology in countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand with the aim of âÄúwaging a war against the West.âÄù Also, there are growing trends of radicalization, religious idealism and anti-Western sentiment. Poverty, illiteracy and a lack of opportunities for livelihood exacerbate this problem, as do corruption and cynicism about the future. To offset this situation, the United States should invest more in AfghanistanâÄôs social and economic sectors. It is not enough to send aid; the United States must make sure these resources are used responsibly and track the progress of development. Given the existing corruption with the disbursement of foreign aid, direct microfinance projects should be devised. According to Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota, a lack of opportunities and livelihood options could contribute to violence, injustices and terrorism in a given community. The civil society organizations from developed countries, including the United States and its allies, should collaborate to design and implement programs considering the real needs on the ground. Until we respond to the real economic needs of the Afghan people, counterinsurgency will fail. Uttam Das welcomes comments at [email protected]