The Guests at Kabul’s Garden Parties

Opinion piece in the Boston Globe by Nick Grono and Joanna Nathan.

Summer in Afghanistan is the fighting season, and the time for Kabul garden parties. At diplomatic, military, and donor agency receptions it is always interesting to count the number of known and rumored drug lords and human rights abusers in attendance.

This socializing sits incongruously with calls from the international community for President Hamid Karzai to stand up to the very same people. The Afghan administration does indeed need to demonstrate a real commitment to combating corruption and narcotics, so as to build accountable and sustainable institutions. But it will cost Karzai real political capital to move against high-level corruption and abuse, particularly in an environment of increasingly entrenched patronage, approaching elections, and vulnerability heightened by the insurgency.

Yet while the international community demands that Karzai take the tough measures, its member states are not prepared to do the simplest of things themselves. They need to stop inviting such people to receptions; and take them off the itineraries of visiting high-level delegations; stop providing them with visas and travel to Western capitals; raise questions about the foreign properties and assets they buy that are way beyond the means of someone on a government salary; and target senior officials, instead of their minions.

One of the most striking examples of everything wrong in Kabul is Sher Pur, a suburb right next to the main diplomatic enclave. Ministry of Defense land – public land – was parceled out to a number of members of the transitional government in 2003 for nominal fees, and existing occupants were forcibly removed. The UN special rapporteur on the right to housing raised the alarm at the time, but was criticized by others in the international community who didn’t want to cause waves. Massive, gaudy mansions – many it is widely assumed funded from questionable sources – have now been built on this land. And who are the new tenants? Embassies and foreign contractors, putting thousands of dollars a month in these landlords’ pockets.

The use of private security firms is another example of double standards. Foreigners demand that Afghans disarm their militias – and have paid millions for disarmament programs. But these groups often reinvent themselves as private security firms, and in many cases are then employed by foreign companies and organizations. It is the networks, rather than the guns in a country awash with weapons, that are important. The militia structures are kept intact, with the salary tab picked up by members of the international community.

The international community continues to seek to co-opt warlords and commanders, turning a blind eye to their abuses and perpetuating the deeply flawed strategy of the past six years. Some say that now is not the time to demand accountability for past abuses – but this often appears to be code for ignoring illegal activities by those prepared to mouth allegiance to the government and the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The UN drug agency has pointed out that the international military continues to ignore the involvement by some “allies” in the drug trade, in exchange for information.

The result of all this is that nascent institutions are corrupted from the outset. This creates incentives against stable and effective government, as corrupt government officials require instability to continue their illegal trade. Their interests are not those of the international community – nor those of the ordinary citizen. Cronyism and corruption among the favored few feed Taliban recruitment, fueling the insurgency, not quelling it.

The population watches with increasing dismay and anger as those responsible for so much of the country’s recent violence entrench themselves and share out the spoils of billions in foreign assistance and state assets. And as foreigners fete and fund them, Afghans understandably view them as complicit. Foreign powers must now set an example in words and actions, as well as by placing demands on the newly entrenched Afghan elite.

Most of the population still sees the international community’s intervention as the best chance of a life free from entrenched violence. But sometimes we make it very hard for them to trust us and the system we are helping build.

Nick Grono is the deputy president at the International Crisis Group in Brussels. Joanna Nathan is Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Kabul.

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