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Afghan local police (ALP) keep watch at a checkpoint at Chardara district, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan June 23, 2015. Afghan government forces regained control of a key district near the northern city of Kunduz on Tuesday, after Taliban fighters had threatened to capture a provincial capital for the first time since being driven from power in 2001. REUTERS/Stringer - RTX1HQEK
Order from Chaos

How predatory crime and corruption in Afghanistan underpin the Taliban insurgency

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Afghanistan is once again on the cusp of a bloody fighting season, which this year didn’t even relent during the winter. In fact, since 2014 the Taliban has mounted and sustained its toughest military campaign yet, and the war has become bloodier than ever. Extensive predatory criminality, corruption, and power abuse—not effectively countered by the Afghan government—have facilitated the Taliban’s entrenchment.

The transition choices by the Afghan government and the international community—including the embrace of problematic warlords for the sake of short-term military battlefield advantages, and as tools of political co-optation—shaped and reinforced criminality and corruption in the post-2001 Afghanistan. In turn, this delegitimized the post-Taliban political dispensation. Indeed, generalized predatory criminality in Afghanistan lies at the crux of Afghanistan’s dire and fragile predicament.

[G]eneralized predatory criminality in Afghanistan lies at the crux of Afghanistan’s dire and fragile predicament.

Missed opportunities

In a report for the United Nations University on the effects of crime and illicit economies on conflict and post-conflict dynamics in Afghanistan, I identify four possible inflection points where the international community and Afghan government could have fundamentally altered the course after the initial choices on the informal distribution of power and its connections to criminality were made in 2001: 1) the 2004 disarmament effort; 2) the beginning of the Obama administration and its surge of resources in Afghanistan; 3) the 2014 formation of the National Unity Government (NUG)—whose two protagonists, President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah crucially campaigned on an anti-corruption platform; and 4) the October 2015 Taliban takeover of Kunduz City.

But the international community and the Afghan government failed to take advantage of these possible inflection points to tackle corruption and criminality, limit power abuse, strengthen the rule of law, and expand political inclusiveness. Or to the extent that they tried—such as during the first two years of the Obama administration—other strategic directives, timelines, and imperatives interfered with them and directly contradicted them. Thus, the anti-corruption and anti-criminality efforts were not underpinned by political heft and power, such as cutting off aid to or otherwise sanctioning particular powerbrokers.

Wrong moves

No doubt, the Taliban itself has become deeply involved in all kinds of illicit economies, including drugs, timber, and gems. This involvement has grown over time, despite the fact that since its inception in 1994 and as a product of the brutality and chaos of the 1990s civil war, the Taliban defined its purpose as improving governance in Afghanistan and acting against the rampant criminality that swept the country.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, it was the Taliban’s involvement in the drug economy that received most international attention out of all the illicit economies, corruption, and predatory criminality that went on in Afghanistan. Yet the chosen counternarcotics policies failed to accomplish their stated goal of bankrupting the Taliban and turned out highly counterproductive. Far from delegitimizing the Taliban in the eyes of local populations as a mere drug cartel, efforts to eradicate opium poppy cultivation and the type of interdiction chosen to go after smuggled drugs and traffickers allowed the Taliban to present itself a protector of people’s livelihoods—giving it significant political capital.

Thus, the international community mounted the most intense efforts against precisely the wrong type of illicit economy and criminality: the labor-intensive poppy cultivation that underpins much of the country’s economic growth and provides elemental livelihoods and human security to vast segments of the rural population. Instead, the anti-crime efforts should have focused on the predatory criminality and non-labor intensive aspects of transactional crimes, such as drug smuggling.

Instead, the anti-crime efforts should have focused on the predatory criminality and non-labor intensive aspects of transactional crimes, such as drug smuggling.

The Obama administration at least de-funded eradication, but its efforts against predatory crime ultimately proved unsatisfactory. They were held hostage to the administration’s own strategic decisions to define the Afghanistan mission as one of limited counterterrorism. It de-emphasized state-building and imposed restrictive deadlines on U.S. assistance, particularly military. Washington and the international community did attempt several anti-organized-crime and anti-corruption initiatives. One of the most visible tools became the military’s anti-corruption task force, Shafafiyat (Transparency), headed by then-Brigadier General H.R. McMaster. Building on a previous International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) task force to investigate corruption surrounding ISAF’s contracting, Shafafiyat had a broad mandate to lead ISAF’s investigations into all aspects of corruption in Afghanistan. But ultimately hamstrung by both political complexities in Afghanistan and the significant drop-off of ISAF’s focus on corruption and governance a year later due to pressing timelines—and the ever more difficult and obstructive then-President Hamid Karzai—this anti-corruption body also has struggled to make more than a sporadic difference.

The creation of the National Unity Government after the highly contested and fraudulent 2014 presidential election represented a third possible inflection point to meaningfully tackle criminality that delegitimizes the post-2001 political dispensation.  Despite the animosity between Ghani and Abdullah—and the impassioned constituencies behind them—there was optimism in Afghanistan and among its international partners that governance would improve after the Karzai years. After all, improving governance and reducing corruption was the one on which Ghani and Abdullah ostensibly agreed.

But so far, the NUG has failed to deliver robustly on these promises. Ghani and Abdullah were deeply beholden to corrupt elites without whose support they could not run in the elections, and on whose support they have continued to depend in power. Thus, two and half years after the formation of the NUG, not even one notorious powerbroker has been legally prosecuted or marginalized.

The anti-crime and anti-corruption measures that have been undertaken have hardly been robust enough. Ghani’s reopening of the notorious case of the fraudulent Kabul bank did not increase asset recovery. With determined international nudging, Ghani’s decision to suspend and clean up a $1 billion fuel contract for the Afghan Ministry of Defense was more successful. However, this important case and Ghani’s subsequent efforts to directly oversee Afghan government contracting at least at the national level have not yet translated into broader clean-up of the massive corruption, patronage, and ethnic favoritism that still pervade and severely weaken the Afghan security forces.

The tangle of ethnic divisions and rifts and competing patronage networks that for years have run through the Afghan security forces complicate any anti-corruption efforts. Under pressure from the international community—frustrated with the meager progress in fighting corruption and with an eye toward an important donors’ conference in Brussels in October 2016—the NUG also established a specialized anti-corruption court in 2016, called the Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC). Perhaps the most significant anti-corruption and anti-crime accomplishment has been in tax and custom revenue recovery. Back in 2014, theft of revenues far exceeded that which characterized the Hamid Karzai era, debilitating the Afghan government. But the following year, the government delivered a spectacular turnaround in revenue generation: from an eight percent drop in 2014 to a 22 percent rise in 2015.

When international troops handed over security to the Afghans in 2014, there was a significant deterioration in security. This was particularly evident in the Taliban takeover of Kunduz in October 2015. That moment was a fourth inflection point to reverse predatory criminality and corruption. The Afghan elite, including its main powerbrokers in the north, were profoundly shook up by the Kunduz development. Although Ghani and Abdullah had been politically indebted to their backers and thus had a relatively weak hand, they could have come together in the aftermath of Kunduz to act against corruption within the Afghan National Security Forces and strengthen their power vis-à-vis predatory powerbrokers who had been engaged in tit-for-tat ethnic and tribal discrimination, land, revenue, resource theft, and extortion in the province for years, long fueling support for the Taliban. But once again, the opportunity was not seized.

Order of operations

Meanwhile, politics in Afghanistan remains fractious, self-interested, predatory, and engaged in constant brinksmanship at the expense of the national interest. This, in a country caught up in intensifying war and deep social and economic problems.

Given these missed inflection points and the basic balance of power in Afghanistan, I recommend this set of policy measures, elaborated in my report, for the remaining two and half years of the NUG:

  • Reducing corruption and improving governance, but in a prioritized manner: tackling first the most dangerous forms of corruption, including in the ANSF, against entire ethnic and tribal groups, and that which paralyzes any service delivery as opposed to merely taxing it;
  • Reining in the warlords and predatory criminality, once again in a prioritized manner without taking on the entire system by focusing on the most egregious forms of predatory crime, including extensive land theft, thuggish monopolistic domination of local economic markets, and rape and murder and the most egregious violators, targeting one powerbroker at a time; and
  • Continuing to properly sequence counternarcotics efforts, including maintaining a suspension of drug eradication.

Check out our other foreign policy blog, Markaz, on politics in and policy towards the Middle East. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

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