The U.S. And Corruption In The Karzai Administration

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Steve Coll — president and CEO of the New America Foundation and author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 — about corruption in the Karzai government.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the greatest challenges facing the U.S. in Afghanistan is how to deal with rampant corruption inside the government. Case in point, one of President Hamid Karzai's top aides, a man named Mohammed Zia Salehi, is under investigation for allegedly soliciting bribes. Well, today the New York Times reports that the same aide, Mr. Salehi, has been paid for years by the CIA.

It's a story that illustrates a perceived contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Karzai government, applying pressure to stop corruption on one hand, but also supporting those who are suspected of being corrupt.

To understand what this means for the war in Afghanistan, we're joined now by Steve Coll, who's president of the New America Foundation and who has written about this conflict for years. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. STEVE COLL (President, New American Foundation): Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: An apparent contradiction in U.S. policy, how do you see it?

Mr. COLL: It is a contradiction. It's been placed into U.S. presence in Afghanistan since late 2001, when the United States came in with a very light force and needed to establish security all over Afghanistan without using American troops directly at that time. And so we made Faustian bargains with warlords and other networks who could keep the peace for us.

SIEGEL: How do you think it affects the perceived legitimacy of the broader U.S. campaign in Afghanistan?

Mr. COLL: I think corruption's an important issue to Afghans, the way they feel it is on the ground, finding themselves without any environment in which they can conduct a normal life, take their crops to the market or run a trucking company without having to pay bribes.

So I think the Afghan experience of corruption on the ground is more like what you'd expect to encounter if you were living in a mafia-infested part of the United States in the 1950s. There is also another level, which is high level corruption in the cabinet. That level of alleged skimming and thievery is presumed by Afghans to go on and sort of beyond their pay grade.

SIEGEL: Of course, some people regard the anti-corruption campaign in Afghanistan as being perhaps akin to the desire to achieve women's rights in Afghanistan, as wonderful, noble, ideal, not the point we're there for. What do you think?

Mr. COLL: Well, the interests of the United States in Afghanistan are often debated and I think they start with the consensus that it would be best to prevent a second Taliban revolution, if possible. And to do that you require stability. And then you get to the question of, well, what kind of stability is really sustainable in Afghanistan? Is it really plausible to prevent the Taliban from returning to power by partnering with politicians who steal money, who load cash into their suitcases and send it off to Dubai? Probably not.

At the same time, everybody in the United States is aware that American engagement in Afghanistan is not going to be open-ended. And there is a tradeoff between the pursuit of security and the pursuit of the perfect government.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. The CIA obviously was deeply involved in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviets. And it was, of course, involved in organizing the campaign against the Taliban. Does the name Central Intelligence Agency carry at least a little bit of favorable baggage with Afghans? I mean, does it regard it as a group that's helped them a lot or does it have the usual sort of revolutionary third world connotations among the Afghans?

Mr. COLL: I think, as in a lot of poor countries that have been subjected to outside interference, people tend to attribute to the CIA omniscient knowledge and omnipotent powers, and to assume that it's present behind the woodwork of almost every event in the country. So I think in general they inflate the importance of the CIA in Afghanistan.

Having said that, in this case, since the fall of the Taliban, the CIA has been centrally involved in building the security forces in Afghanistan, particularly the National Security directorate.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. COLL: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation was written about Afghanistan for many years. His book about the war is called "Ghost Wars."

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