Corruption in Afghanistan: Greed is more powerful than ideology

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In a fascinating article by Carl Thompson, published by IDGA (Institute for Defense and Government Advancement) entitled that is thwarting our progress in Afghanistan.   Found below are examples cited by Mr. Thompson of rampant corruption across all elements of Afghan society.

  • We had ANA (Afghan National Army) and the Ford Rangers that were given to them were missing the spare tires and jacks. All spare tires and jacks were gone in every company.
  • New fuel pumps were taken off of the trucks and sold in downtown Kabul. An old fuel pump was brought back in and put on the truck.
  • The Battalion Maintenance Officer had failed to list 3 of the older Ford Rangers on the vehicle list. They were at his relatives houses.
  • Tools were taken from the maintenance shop out of the brand new #1 Common tool set
  • The battalion S4 drove 3 hours out to the field to steal cases of MREs.
  • Kickbacks were given from any project back to the local officials, ANP or the ANA. And who got them caused fights.
  • Fuel trucks arrived with half of what fuel was bought. The Brigade Commander had relatives who owned gas stations.
  • Soldiers would sell their TA50 (issue equipment) downtown for money.
  • The BDE warehouses would load trucks full of equipment and sell it downtown.
  • Whole sections of ANP (Afghan National Police) were not paid because the sub-governor kept their pay for himself. After 3 months the ANP quit.
  • ANP consistently shake down or extort the local people for money because that is all they really know.
  • Citizens have to pay bribes to government officials for VISAs to travel abroad.

Mr. Thompson goes on to state that “the list of corrupt practices within the Afghan society is astounding. The impact of how this mindset effects getting operations done on the ground cannot be underestimated. There are two basic ways that people get things done when working together. Americans are operating in one mindset and the Afghans are operating in the other. We need to better understand the cultural mindset of the country we are operating in or we will continue to fail as we operate in it.”

To illustrate the dilemma faced by US forces in Afghanistan, Mr. Thompson states that ‘the ANA command will siphon off all of the material that they can before it ever gets into the hands of the soldiers that need it. The Americans need the Afghans to fight. In order to do that, we have to work on the logistics aspect of getting the ANA soldiers the supplies they need. This means a large number of US soldiers shifted from combat-type missions to support and guarding type missions.”    If effect, the Afghanistan military we are supposed to be training is simply selling off equipment for personal gain and frustrating efforts to train and equip an effective domestic military force. 

Mr. Thompson argues that the Afghanistan National Police (ANP) should arrest people selling stolen military equipment in open-air markets in Kabul that “makes us lose face and look incompetent to the very people we are trying to influence.”  He goes on to argue that “the American military needs address this (corruption) aggressively. Our image and prestige with the people of Afghanistan is what will win. Building a stable democracy with a solid and effective government should be our goal. It starts with getting the basic functions of government to deliver services to the people. The first place we should be able to set the example is the military.”

While I applaud Mr. Thompson’s recommendation, I suspect that ingrained cultural and societal differences will be so difficult to overcome that it is a battle that cannot be won.  And even if we are successful, have we really won the hearts and minds of the people? 

The protracted ground war in Afghanistan is sapping the vitality of the brave young men and women serving in harm’s way.  With a $2 billion a week price tag and the hardships and sacrifices may by our military and their families, one must ask:  Is the United States in Afghanistan to fight terrorists or police institutional corruption?

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Savages don’t Surf

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My friend is on his fourth and last deployment to Afghanistan assigned to a unit training the Afghan National Army.  He had a WTF moment the other day when he boarded a Huey UH-H1 and flew over the Jalalabad Pass, “Is this Apocalypse Now?”  I guess his disillusionment finally surfaced.  Can you blame him?  Riding in a Huey?  I thought the fleet was officially retired from the Active inventory last October 2009! Appropriately, this seasoned warrior closed with “Savages Don’t Surf!”  Very cheeky since “savage” is one of the more acceptable noms de guerre for the enemy in Afghanistan.

And the “…don’t surf” refers of course to Robert Duvall‘s LTC Kilgore telling Martin Sheen’s naïve Captain Willard, “Charlie don’t surf”—cleverly invoking a commander’s hubris and brazen disregard for danger in the pursuit of an objective to satisfy a whim.

Only missing was Wagner blasting out of loudspeakers as his slick flew to some dusty objective.  But supercharged rhapsodies were playing in Kabul this week to “…scare the hell out of the Savages”  while more happy talk ensued about Afghans and NATO being “shoulder to shoulder” and emerging as a lethal military force ready to assume security in late 2011.  None of which bears any resemblance to the reports we’ve been receiving from concerned advisors and trainers on the ground.

LTG Jim Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission, Combined Security Transition Command, leads the reforming and training of the Afghanistan National Security Forces.   After nine months at the helm, Frontier 6—the General’s call sign—finally briefed the press this week and provided an assessment of this critical mission.  Since early 2002, the training mission’s primary focus has been to develop infantry-centric skills. One would think that by now the “training wheels are off,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, independent Afghan operations have routinely been abysmal failures, the Afghans remain tethered to the US and NATO for logistic support and there’s a lack of effective intelligence capability, medical support and transportation units.

“Savages Don’t Surf” could be the indelible catch-phrase for what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan before we finally withdraw.  It’s as if LTG Caldwell, no matter his experience, talent, newly available resources and commitment from NATO partners, can only, at the end of the day, provide a temporary solution.  The looming deadline in October 2011 to double the force and create stand-alone Afghan military units gives Frontier 6 only 14 months to field a legitimate Army before the clock runs out. Whatever fledgling Afghan force is cobbled together and deployed to the four winds to take on the complex and dangerous security mission that is counter-insurgency, the beach will not be safe without serious US combat support. Which means that whatever the tune playing from the podium, our sons and daughters are stuck indefinitely in this tar baby.

What’s so frustrating is that the command will never admit the inevitable perpetuation of the mission nor its futility. And even if someone ever does, we’ll never know because the Ride of the Valkyries will be drowning out the General.  “Shall we dance?”—as the Huey pilot remarked to Robert Duvall—sounds about right. So why wait, we might as well crank up the volume and drown out the spin.

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