Where it's Corruption or the Taliban

Corruption is endemic to Afghanistan. Petraeus's plan to root it out is Washington's only chance of even a modicum of success.

No one is debating whether corruption is endemic to Afghanistan. It is. It reaches the highest levels of government, and seeps down to the smallest villages. Everyone seems corrupted: officials, businessmen, police, the military. Optimists say we can change the culture. Pessimists say we never will; they argue that corruption is a way of life that dates back millennia.

Both are right. Take the pessimists first. For many Afghans, what in the United States would be termed kickbacks would, in Afghanistan, and in many of its neighboring countries, be viewed simply as gift giving and exchanges of favors. This being the case, it would be, and is, exceedingly difficult to deal with virtually anyone in that country without either violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or insulting one's Afghan counterparts by not working within what are accepted Afghan cultural norms. And Afghanistan will not change its culture that easily. Far more developed states—think Russia, or some Balkan countries—still wrestle with their own legacies of corruption. Cultural change of any kind is in any event an arduous process that can take decades—witness the latest effort to reform the Defense Department's culture of inefficient spending.

But the optimists are correct as well. Corruption is not genetic. It is possible to create institutions that can function with transparency and accountability. Long-established states, like those in Western Europe, are not the only ones to have for the most part conquered cultures of corruption. Singapore, still in its first half century of independence, managed to do so in but a few decades, and ranks third on the worldwide corruption index ahead of all-buttwo European states and, for that matter, the United States as well. South Korea and Taiwan overcame legacies of corruption—and autocracy—and now rank in the top forty. So too does Botswana, which has bucked trends in Africa. All three rank ahead of most Balkan and many central European states. Clean government is not a Western monopoly.

Cultural change therefore is achievable, but it has several prerequisites. First and foremost is leadership. Strong leaders, like Lee Kwan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, can force corruption out of a system. Weak leaders cannot. Hamid Karzai is no Lee Kwan Yew; that, more than anything else, does not bode well for eliminating high-level corruption in Afghanistan anytime soon.

Another critical factor in doing away with corruption is providing incentives for accountability. The best incentive is money: Singapore pays its civil servants princely sums. Petty corruption is simply not worth the risk of losing prestigious and well-paying jobs. Here, too, Afghanistan falls short. While billions are flowing into the country, public servants are woefully underpaid. They see the rich become even richer; the temptation to go along—and get wealthy—is too great for most of them to overcome.

Finally, there must be a systematic set of governance rules that provides for investigation, and punishment, of those who violate ethical norms. Here too, Singapore and other states in the top forty have provided for such rules. Afghanistan's most efficient system of justice is that of the Taliban. As much as its brutality, it is the impression of incorruptibility that the Taliban conveys (even if not entirely true) that attracts Afghans who are so fed up with the current system that they will accept Taliban religious excesses if that is the price of a more equitable, less corrupt society.

Yet, it is that very bargain with the devil which most Afghans are willing to make that should give hope to those who still feel that corruption can at least be tamed, though not eliminated, in Afghan society. Clearly, most Afghans are sick of the corruption that surrounds them. And it is the ordinary people in the villages who should be the first to benefit from any anticorruption efforts and who, in fact, hold the key to the defeat of the Taliban. Without their support, the Taliban's momentum simply cannot be sustained. Nor can that of more fanatical groups like the Haqqanis, who do not have the Taliban's record of providing harsh, but fair, justice to those they rule.

Reflecting the view of many analysts, and the realities of Afghan life, General David Petraeus wants to fight corruption as much, if not more, from the "bottom up"—that is, at the local level, where his forces have considerable sway—as from the top down, where President Karzai has yet to shed himself of friends and relatives that continue to abuse their positions of power. Fighting corruption at multiple levels will still take time—years, if not decades. But if the populace sees that some progress is truly being made, even as the culture of gift giving and exchanges of favors remains a fact of Afghan life, not only will the attractions of the Taliban pale in comparison to its brutality, but the pressure on Karzai and especially his henchmen might actually lead to a cleanup at the top of the system as well. Petraeus should be given a chance to carry out his plan. It is, in fact, probably the only way that the United States can hope to achieve even a modicum of success after nearly a decade of seemingly endless fighting and runaway expenditure of money and materiel.