General David Petraeus, in a rare public show of indecorum, last week suggested that corruption has been a part of Afghan culture since the country came into existence, which is a sentiment that is not only, from a historical and anthropological perspective, wholly ignorant, but one that exposes intentions on the General's part that seem both dubious as well as misplaced.
Reason being is that Petraeus is a smart guy - one doubts he seriously subscribes to the notion that corruption is some inherently Afghan deformity, especially considering a cursory reading of history informs that prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979 jobbery was no worse in Afghanistan than it was in the United States (when, odds are, graft was worse in Chicago than Kabul). Most embarrassing for Petraeus to look at is the direct role the U.S. played in corrupting Afghan society. So, not only is it false that the country was always this way, the reality is the U.S. has helped transform Afghanistan into one of the most corrupt places on the planet.
Unfortunately, it seems Petraeus was simply trying to protect the good name of Afghanistan's top criminal, President Hamid Karzai - subtly painting Mr. Karzai as a victim awash in a culture of venality when the truth is that the Karzai family has sunk Afghan society to unparalleled depths of libidinous fraud, nepotism and extortion.
The General apparently believes he needs Karzai intact so he can execute a more seamless exit strategy, which doesn't make sense because Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine depends on winning the support of the local populace, which is mission impossible with Karzai as head of state.
For surely Petraeus must realize, as outlined in a new white paper by the New World Strategies Coalition, that not only was Afghanistan less corrupt during the forty-year reign of King Zahir Shah, a run that began in the 1930s and ended in the early 1970s, but the Afghan people also enjoyed unprecedented peace, stability, prosperity and progressive social reform. That type of society seems like ancient folklore in light of today's conditions.
The before and after snapshots are mind-blowing, illustrating a near incogitable contrast between an Afghanistan that was free from external interventions versus an Afghanistan that is occupied and manipulated by foreign powers that have marginalized, weakened and corrupted centuries-old indigenous tribal institutions and value systems. One is challenged to find another example of a society that has experienced such dramatic economic, political, technological and cultural regression in such a short time period.
The state had been erected upon lessons learned through centuries trying to maintain peace within an insular acephalous tribal society with a penchant for infighting and was most functional when it resembled a "loose" confederation in which legislative and judicial powers were pushed down to the local level - a concept analogous to America's states' rights.
So one can just imagine how Afghans view the Western-style uber-centralized government that was installed. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher characterized how important a loose decentralized type of rule is for Afghans in an interview I conducted with him earlier this year:
"Zahir Shah was the king of Afghanistan for 40 years and was successful because he didn't try to rule the entire country from Kabul. The King had a mandate from God- but he still let the people rule themselves locally."
The ultra-centralization that the Americans afforded to be written into the Afghan constitution has been almost as tragic a mistake as propping up Karzai as the leader - a structure that has enabled his family to consolidate money and power to a mind-numbing degree.
Prior to foreign meddling the power structures in Afghan society were relatively distributed and rarely abused. The tribes were vertically-structured and egalitarian in nature in which decisions were made based on consensus-building. This in contrast to orders being handed down from a hierarchical command structure which lacks proper checks and balances and breeds corruption.
And although tribal elders typically had the final say, they were able to become leaders in the first place because they had earned the honor of their respective tribes, deriving their power from moral authority, not threat of violence. As opposed to today where the Karzais earn power by procuring votes and/or having tribal elders "disappeared".
Unfortunately, King Zahir Shah eventually ended up the victim of historical circumstances shackled to a century and a half legacy of colonial domination. Caught between the forces of communism, Islamic fascism and the geopolitics of the Cold War his grand plans for progressive democratic reform were crushed and his country destroyed.
During the 1970s Afghanistan played the role of chessboard for U.S. Cold War strategy against the Soviets, a decade that ended with the U.S. and C.I.A. forcing the Soviets' hand into invading Afghanistan to, as President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it: "give Russia its Vietnam", as the U.S. went from Nixonian détente to Carterian confrontation.
It is now no secret that the C.I.A., via Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funded and supported violent Islamic jihadists called the mujahideen, providing them billions for weapons and training. After the Soviet retreat, these mujahideen "freedom fighters" became the very warlords that divided and terrified Afghanistan as it spiraled into civil war, moral decay and chaos.
Ironically, corruption did diminish during Taliban rule which began in the mid-1990s as the Taliban were actually born as a reaction to the old mujahideen guard's lack of "purity". Most Afghans believe if the Taliban return to power one benefit will be a reduction in corruption, although it would come at the price of personal freedom.
After the post-9/11 take-down of the Taliban the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan by taking a detour to Iraq and left it, once again, in the hands of corrupt warlords. This time the U.S. military paid these miscreants millions upon millions to "secure and keep the peace", which further corrupted the country. Thus, the rise of warlordism was yet another non-indigenous phenomenon that would have never taken root were it not for foreign meddling.
Today, the Karzais have no intention of reviving traditional value systems because the Karzai clique is threatened by tribalism, seeing it as much too egalitarian, instead preferring a form of patronage that is not inclusive but serves one side - their side.
Not to say that corruption was never a problem before the Soviet invasion, but it looked nothing like the wanton avarice we see today - and Petraeus knows this. However, what still remains a mystery is why the General continues to protect the bane of his COIN strategy whose corruption is feeding the insurgency just as much as America's mere presence - then again, to most Afghans, Karzai and the U.S. are one and the same.