Afghanistan’s leadership undermines NATO’s work

In a report recently released by Transparency International, Afghanistan found itself sandwiched between Somalia and Myanmar in the top three most corrupt countries in the world.

Payments totalling millions of dollars in the form of cash wrapped in plastic bags traded hands from high-level Iranian officials to high-level Afghan officials. These payments are symptomatic of the corruption that plagues the Afghan government. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai used the money to pay lawmakers, tribal elders and the Taliban for loyalty and cooperation. Karzai, while admitting that the bags come twice a year with millions of dollars in cash, has denied any wrongdoing.

Karzai’s openness and honesty about taking the money doesn’t make matters any better– that Karzai thinks that this is perfectly acceptable is worrying. Openly discussing the bags doesn’t make how they’re processed open or transparent. Foreign aid usually comes in more legitimate forms than bags of money. Transferring the money in bags, rather than through a means that will leave a paper trail, suggests that something else is at play here. Either the Iranians and Afghans don’t have the ability to use more legitimate and modern banking techniques like cheques or transferring funds, or they have something to hide.

The under-the-counter money transfers from Iran are just another incident in a string of questionable actions by Karzai. Afghanistan needs a legitimate government for NATO to work with and Karzai has proved that he isn’t that type of partner. If democratic elections had happened in the first place, many of these issues would’ve been avoided. Instead, the last election was marred with fraud and ballot stuffing (turnout at some polling stations was over 100 per cent the amount of registered voters).

Afghanistan needs to reform their election laws to make it so that the Electoral Complaints Commission, the body responsible for overseeing elections, isn’t run by the government. After the commission complained about voter fraud during the last election, Karzai took it upon himself to appoint its members. The commission needs to be neutral and non-partisan which will make it much easier for future elections to be democratic and less corrupt than the most recent one. There also needs to be a long term role for international monitoring of elections, like in Iraq and many African countries.

Widescale change, however, is dependent on the current leadership, who are trying to both convince NATO that fighting terrorism is worthwhile while also funding the Taliban. A large part of the controversy is that the money is being used to pay off Taliban leaders. The loyalties being bought are short sighted and dependent on a continued supply of money, so stability (fragile as it already is) is unlikely to last. In order for real partnerships to be forged in Afghanistan, more communication than handovers of money is necessary, otherwise the Afghan government will find itself very alone once the money dries up. Partnerships need to be based on cooperation and mutual goals, not stacks of bills. If negotiations do proceed with the Taliban, this superficial tactic needs to be abandoned and deeper ties forged.

There is also the issue of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Iran has claimed that the money is simply aid from one country to another but it is much more than that. Iran is attempting to buy influence and loyalty in the region. On the surface it seems natural for Iran to have a role in Afghanistan given their cultural, linguistic and geographic ties to one another, but the concern is that Iran’s influence in Afghanistan will likely be negative. Iran has a track record of giving money to insurgents and warlords in Afghanistan and is antithetical to the misson NATO is pursuing.

The current NATO role involves two things– the first being counter insurgency, which NATO has been moderately successful at. The increased NATO military presence has helped to stabilize some regions while others have become worse, yet there is still a long way to go. The second is to build stability and encourage democratic government. So far, NATO has been lacking in this role. Afghanistan is neither stable nor democratic and this is unlikely to change unless elections are fair and the Afghan government is less corrupt– neither of which will be achieved before NATO forces are set to leave next year.

The NATO mission originally had the goals of getting rid of the Taliban and bringing stability to the region. In a year, as NATO forces pack up to leave, Afghanistan is likely to slide into even worse corruption and be taken over by rival warlords. Without a stable, capable and democratically elected government the country will be no better off than it was before all of this started, which is not in the interest of the west nor the Afghan people.

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