Corruption Limits Security In Afghanistan, Ex-State Department Officer Says
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Afghanistan today, just days after a Taliban attack on an army base. It was the deadliest such attack since 2001. Taliban fighters dressed in military uniforms raided a base near Mazar-e-Sharif - that's in the northern part of the country. More than a hundred people were killed.
For years, critics of the Afghan government have pointed to endemic corruption as a big reason that the Taliban remains so strong and support for the government is so weak. We're going to look now at the political side of the security equation in Afghanistan with Kael Weston. He was a State Department officer who served as a political adviser to U.S. Marine units in Afghanistan. He joins us on the line via Skype.
KAEL WESTON: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So I want to start in Helmand province, actually, because last month an Afghan general there, who was in charge of cleaning up corruption in the province, was arrested on charges of corruption. So you know, this is just one case. Corruption has been a huge problem in Afghanistan long before the U.S. war there. Can you just describe how the corruption issue exacerbates the security problems in Afghanistan?
WESTON: Sure. I think there are a couple of levels. One is the notion of ghost soldiers. So you have a real division between the troops on the ground who are dodging the bombs and fighting the Taliban day to day. And then you have, like you mentioned, the generals who are, it seems, not yet very effective at reducing the amount of money they're trying to put in their back pocket. And I think, at the other level, it's just an overall lack of confidence between the average Afghan, the average juma gul (ph) and the perception as to whether or not their government offers something better. And those, I think, are the two big challenges that we still face 15-and-a-half years in.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the distrust of the central government. I mean, the government of Hamid Karzai was kind of notorious for - maybe not turning a blind eye but definitely not doing enough to crack down on corruption. The new government led by Ashraf Ghani - very America-friendly - was supposed to prioritize corruption. How are they doing?
WESTON: I think they're doing better. I don't think it's anywhere close to being satisfactory for anyone, whether that's the American taxpayer or for, more importantly, the average Afghan who's just trying to get on with their life. But I do think there's been progress. And we're fortunate that our new national security adviser's main job, when he was in Kabul, was looking at corruption. So now he's sitting, you know, in a very important chair in the Situation Room in the White House...
MARTIN: Yeah, you're talking about H.R. McMaster.
WESTON: That's right. So you know, he knows the corruption issue from the inside out. So it's better. But I think, you know, from the Afghan point of view - what they used to tell me when I lived in hosts in the eastern part of the country or in the southern part of the country - is that, you know, Afghanistan has been at war for three decades. And corruption feeds into that. But there are also a number of other issues that are, I think, just as important as the corruption. And that's, you know, in effect, a civil war and some terrorist issues that cross borders with Pakistan and throughout the region.
MARTIN: So when you think about trying to get out of this cycle - because it is a cycle, right? Like, you can't have a secure country unless you get a grip on corruption. But corruption breeds insecurity. Insecurity breeds corruption. It's a never-ending cycle - what is the U.S. role in breaking that?
WESTON: I think the signal that we need to send and that we're trying to send is one of an enduring partnership, which shows that we care about what happens in that country and in that part of the world. It is our longest war in American history. So I don't think Afghans are expecting us to walk in and solve corruption in a year or in two years. But I do think they're looking for commitment.
MARTIN: Let me just ask you in closing, Kael - President Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, explained that the White House budget proposal is about hard power not soft power. And soft power is Washington-talk for things like foreign aid or development assistance. Do you think the U.S. should reconsider aid that's earmarked for building Afghan institutions, given the level of corruption?
WESTON: We should be asking a lot of hard questions. But if you look at the world only in terms of hard power, there will be more war and more costs over the long term. And I think that's something that none of us want.
MARTIN: Kael Weston is a former State Department official who served in Afghanistan. He's the author of "The Mirror Test: America At War In Iraq And Afghanistan."
Thanks so much for talking with us.
WESTON: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.