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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Who Owns The War?

We’ve talked before about corruption in Afghanistan. In debating what to do there, some argue that Iraq was just as corrupt, yet the surge still worked. Was Iraq just as corrupt? It looks like it. Both countries are ranked near the bottom of the Corruption Perception Index: Iraq at 178 and Afghanistan at 176. With the inexact art of calibrating corruption, that’s a dead heat. But for American policy makers, there’s a world of difference between the two countries.

Iraq always had local leaders who were incorruptible. They were fighting for their tribes — historically stable and cohesive groups — and were unwavering. Their objective was to protect their tribal land and people from the insurgents, and they were willing to do whatever it took. They led the awakening movements, first in Anbar Province, then across the country. Official history says the awakening started around 2005; ask soldiers who were there, however, and they’ll tell you it started earlier. It just took time before U.S. commanders and politicians gave the tribal leaders any credit.

But in Afghanistan, soldiers say, there’s nobody equivalent to the Iraqi sheiks. Strong local leaders with a stake in peace don’t exist. So America’s choice of partners comes down to the politicians, military and police, and most aren’t reliable from one day to the next.

* * *
Based on what Thomas Friedman had to say this week about the way the sleaze works, it’s hard to see how a hearts-and-minds campaign can be successful:

Talking to Afghanistan experts in Kabul, Washington and Berlin, a picture is emerging: The Karzai government has a lot in common with a Mafia family. Where a “normal” government raises revenues from the people — in the form of taxes — and then disperses them to its local and regional institutions in the form of budgetary allocations or patronage, this Afghan government operates in the reverse. The money flows upward from the countryside in the form of payments for offices purchased or “gifts” from cronies.

What flows from Kabul, the experts say, is permission for unfettered extraction, protection in case of prosecution and punishment in case the official opposes the system or gets out of line. In “Karzai World,” it appears, slots are either sold (to people who buy them in order to make a profit) or granted to cronies, or are given away to buy off rivals. . . .

. . . Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our top commander there who is asking for thousands more troops, is not wrong when he says a lot of bad things would flow from losing Afghanistan to the Taliban. But I keep asking myself: How do we succeed with such a tainted government as our partner?

* * *
In a preview of the October 18, 2009 New York Times Magazine, Dexter Filkins reports from the battlefield (here). The article brings to mind David Halberstam’s spot-on accounts from Vietnam in the 1960s. Filkins’ focus is Gen. McChrystal and the soldiers on the ground. But he explores the whole idea of waging a counter-insurgency in a place where we don’t have local partners.

Success takes time, but how much time does Stanley McChrystal have? The war in Afghanistan is now in its ninth year. The Taliban, measured by the number of their attacks, are stronger than at any time since the Americans toppled their government at the end of 2001. American soldiers and Marines are dying at a faster rate than ever before. Polls in the United States show that opposition to the war is growing steadily.

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell. . . .

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