Let Afghans Lead Afghan Reform

NEW YORK – Although the outcome remains uncertain, Afghanistan’s presidential election has demonstrated that the Afghan people yearn for more accountable leadership. But it is no less clear that this aspiration is far from being met, and that the country’s poor governance is laying a dangerously weak foundation for international engagement.

The United States and its allies cannot succeed in Afghanistan unless the Afghan government itself succeeds. Despite the US Congress’s appropriate calls to establish benchmarks for American progress in Afghanistan, too few people are calling for the Afghan government to articulate its goals for improving governance and accountability, and how it plans to meet them. Until it does and international support is conditioned on Afghan progress in realizing goals set by Afghans, the country’s state institutions will continue to lose credibility. Meaningful success in Afghanistan will become elusive at any level of funding or international troop presence.

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Today, many parts of the Afghan state are rotting from within. Systemic corruption can be found at all levels. A large number of government officials, including members of President Hamid Karzai’s own family, are alleged to be involved in trafficking narcotics, timber, gems, and other illicit goods. Karzai’s pardoning of drug traffickers with indirect ties to his re-election campaign also raised fundamental questions about his government’s commitment to the rule of law.

Afghans themselves are not solely to blame for this state of affairs. The US and the international community focused far too little on building a suitable structure of governance after the 2001 intervention. In the name of short-term expediency, too little was done to sack corrupt governors and police, or to counter involvement by high-level officials in the narcotics trade.

Whatever the causes, official corruption is creating a situation in which many Afghans fear the rapaciousness of the government nearly as much as they dislike the Taliban, which can now credibly claim the ability to provide security and swift justice in the areas they control, albeit at a very high price.

All things being equal, Afghans would prefer security under any regime other than the Taliban. Democracy and the rule of law could conceivably be an effective alternative to what the Taliban offer, but the government cannot credibly claim to provide either, not to mention basic services, on a consistent basis. And, because the international community still pays the government’s bills, many Afghans assume that donors support endemic corruption.

Given increasing public wariness about Afghanistan in the US and elsewhere, and the countries’ overwhelming reliance on international largesse, it would be tempting to follow the usual route by developing internationally-generated goals and then engaging with Afghan leaders to explore how best to achieve them. Such a process will not succeed. Corruption can be addressed only if the Afghan government itself takes primary responsibility for addressing it.

The best way to help make Afghanistan’s government more accountable to its people over the long term is by working to strengthen Afghan democracy, but this level of accountability is still far off – and Afghanistan desperately needs better governance now.

To foster accountability in the near term, the international community should call on the next Afghan administration to establish its own goals for good governance and lay out benchmarks to measure progress. If the international community believes that these goals are correct, assistance should continue to be provided as long as the benchmarks are being met. If they are not, assistance could be scaled back to avoid having international funds continue to support corrupt practices.

Afghanistan is a sovereign state, and its government has the authority do what it wants. But the international community is not obliged to finance official corruption. Internally generated reform is the only reform that can work, and it cannot occur if Afghan officials take international assistance for granted or see themselves as subordinate actors in their own reform process.

Unless adequately addressed, official corruption will fatally undermine conditions in Afghanistan and make the continuation of international support unsustainable and success impossible. The time has come for the Afghan government to take the lead in fighting corruption, and for the international community to make clear that it will not provide a blank check for anything less.