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Afghanistan’s Biggest Obstacle Is Its Government

Erik Goepner

During his unannounced visit to Afghanistan earlier this month,
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered misguided praise for the
Afghan government as he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment there. He
lauded the country for having “come quite a distance already
in terms of creating … a much more vibrant government.”
Unfortunately, the Afghan government is far from vibrant. More to
the point, it is horribly corrupt, incompetent, and illiberal.

Instead of offering praise, Americans should be asking why their
government continues to support such a dreadful regime. More
importantly, why should Afghans support their own government? And
without Afghans offering increasing support to their government,
the “longest war” will likely only get longer.

Afghans continue to
endure a government at or near the world’s worst, and a decade and
a half of herculean efforts on the part of the U.S. and others have
not moved the needle.

Far from fair and judicious, the Afghan government enables its
officials to get away with nearly anything. Transparency
International’s Corruption Perceptions Index assesses the
Afghan government as more corrupt than 96 percent of all
governments in the international system. Understandably, Secretary
Tillerson shared U.S. concerns about corruption during his recent
meeting with the Afghan president, concerns that previous
administrations frequently raised in the past and had ignored.

All of that corruption sounds a lot like what I saw when I
served as the military commander of a provincial reconstruction
team working with Afghan government officials in 2010.

The exemplar of corruption was an Afghan district chief in the
remote southern province my team and I operated in. To supplement
his income, the district chief would dispatch his bodyguard to
establish illegal checkpoints. The bodyguard would shake down
motorists, particularly those transiting goods to sell in nearby
Pakistan.

Businessmen had caught on to the illegal checkpoints and devised
their own workarounds. On one afternoon, a convoy of vehicles
loaded with equipment destined for Pakistan came up to the illegal
checkpoint. In this instance, the savvy businessman had unlawfully
hired off-duty police to protect his goods. Naturally, neither side
backed down, so a firefight erupted between the district
chief’s bodyguard and cronies and the off-duty police, all of
whom had already violated Afghan law well before they tried to kill
each other.

In response, Kabul dispatched a special emissary. The emissary
gave the provincial governor unique authority to fire the offending
district chief. The provincial governor, himself exiled to the
remote southern province as penance for corruption, promised to
fire the district chief. In the end, though, he did no such thing.
Instead, like the authorities in Kabul had previously done with
him, the provincial governor simply moved the offending district
chief to the same job but in a different location.

And regarding security, Afghan forces continue to fail. Despite
boasting 365,000 members, they barely control or contest half of
the country’s districts. Instead, the Taliban continue to
make gains, now controlling larger swaths than at any point since
their ouster. When previously in power, though, the Taliban managed
to dominate more than 90 percent of the country, despite only
having a security force of about 35,000.

How can today’s Afghan security forces, now 10 times
larger, produce such inferior results? Moreover, for 16 years
Afghan forces have had the world’s greatest military fighting
alongside them. They have enjoyed billions of U.S. dollars,
first-class training, and top of the line equipment, yet they
continue to flounder against a much smaller enemy who has received
substantially less training and inferior equipment.

Finally, Afghanistan’s government hasn’t made the
country substantially freer than it was under the Taliban. Freedom
House gives Afghanistan its lowest rating — not free; the
same rating as when the Taliban controlled the country in 2001.
Political rights and civil liberties’ scores indicate the
Afghan government “may allow a few political rights”
and they “strongly limit the rights of expression and
association.”

Unfortunately, success hinges on the Afghan government, not U.S.
efforts. U.S. military doctrine for counterinsurgency, developed in
response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, makes it clear: the
goal of counterinsurgency is to “ensure that the host nation
government meets the baseline expectations of the population to
solidify its legitimacy.”

Sadly, Afghans continue to endure a government at or near the
world’s worst, and a decade and a half of herculean efforts
on the part of the U.S. and others have not moved the needle.
Instead of offering praise, America’s leaders should stop
spending America’s treasure, particularly the lives of its
citizens, on such a misadventure.

Erik Goepner
commanded military units in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a visiting
research fellow at the Cato Institute and doctoral candidate at
George Mason University.