NATO aims to fight Afghan crooks — without naming them

By Deepa Babington

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – NATO officials in Afghanistan often say the only way they will win the war is to break the grip of “malign actors” — crooked officials and others who have soured Afghans on their government.

Yet as U.S.-led forces gear up for the biggest offensive of the 8-year-war in the southern city of Kandahar, NATO officials are reluctant to publicly challenge corrupt authorities — a strategy critics say risks backfiring in the eyes of Afghans.

NATO officials say it is not their responsibility to name and shame those they think are corrupt.

“You can’t single out anyone individually,” said Jess Dutton, a Canadian who runs NATO’s governance and development programmes in Kandahar as head of the provincial reconstruction team.

“There are microcosms of power brokers throughout Afghanistan. That’s the challenge the formal Afghan government has to deal with.”

NATO officials’ refusal to publicly accuse the “malign actors” — their catch-all term for crime bosses, corrupt officials, drug lords and warlords — has raised fears the new offensive will leave the crooks in place, stronger than ever.

Critics say ordinary Afghans could end up seeing NATO troops as acting on behalf of hated local bosses, while public opinion in NATO countries could be hurt when voters learn of the backgrounds of the bigwigs their troops may inadvertently battle to support.

NATO officials say they hope to loosen the grip of power brokers on Kandahar by cajoling rival tribes to share influence within formal government, and building up district and provincial leaders. But they will not try to pick them.

“There are malign actors that complicate the governance aspect of what we’re doing, so that’s why we’re trying to reinforce the formal arms of government, that is, the governor, the district governors,” Dutton said.

“We’re not going to go into districts and say ‘We’re not going to work with you, we’re going to work with someone else.'”


The key, said Dutton, was making people feel the government is representative and responsive to their needs. A U.S. official in Kandahar also said the idea was to push through development projects while Western troops provide better security, rather than focusing on undermining corrupt power brokers.

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think-tank in Kabul, said a strategy of investing in strengthening the local government was unlikely to succeed unless NATO does more to weed out crooks.

“It’s not enough to say let’s focus on the formal government and the rest will sort itself out,” she said.

“What will probably end up happening is that a lot of money will be spent, but not in a way that people will see a lot of difference. Capacity building is usually very expensive, but it usually does not make the institutions less corrupt.”

The NATO governance strategy in Kandahar is not new and has been breeding resentment among local people, she said.

“The military very much sees governance as service delivery, but in the eyes of Afghans, in the first place it is who holds power and what they do with it,” she said.

“People are not waiting for someone to roll out projects to impress them. They want to feel safer, and that has to do with the insurgents and with local power brokers.”

In Kandahar, the name of one individual in particular comes up frequently — except on the tongues of NATO officials: Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, a powerful businessman and head of the provincial council.

U.S. officials anonymously briefed journalists in recent weeks that they would like to sideline him. Washington believes his presence is polarising and suspects him of links to the opium trade and criminal dealings, which he strongly denies.

Yet NATO officials acknowledge that when the dust settles on the Kandahar operation, Ahmad Wali Karzai is likely to remain in place as one of the most powerful men in Kandahar.

U.S. officials in Kandahar decline to speak about him on the record. All Dutton would say about him was that his “perception with the people in Kandahar is something that he has to work on”.

To reduce the influence of power brokers, NATO’s answer has been to strengthen Kandahar’s governor, Tooryalai Wesa. But Wesa was appointed by President Hamid Karzai, and defends Ahmad Wali Karzai as essential to maintaining stability in the city. Some Afghans are clearly not impressed.

“The corruption has reached its peak and even the governor cannot raise his voice,” said Shekiba Hashimi, a female lawmaker from Kandahar.

“We should bring precise reforms before the operation, and as long as Ahmad Wali is there, there will be no reform and stability.”


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