Government corruption and weak rule of law could undermine success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, a risk both President Obama and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen underscored during their visits there this week.
The pressure from the administration comes about 50 days after beginning its last major offensive in Marjah, where the U.S. and allies are trying to build a new local government answerable to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It also comes roughly two months ahead of its next offensive in Kandahar, where Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, heads the provincial council and reportedly is linked to the illicit opium trade. A senior U.S. military official warned that he could become a target if found assisting insurgents, according to Reuters.
"We will be unable to succeed in Kandahar if we cannot eliminate a vast majority of corruption there and set up a legitimate governance structure," Mullen told reporters Tuesday.
Kandahar is the second-largest city in Afghanistan and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace.
The U.S. strategy calls for a credible Afghan government that has the support of Afghans and is capable of administering the country after U.S. and NATO forces begin leaving July 2011. Yet an ABC/ARD/BBC poll conducted in December 2009 shows that 95 percent of Afghans surveyed said official corruption is a problem in their area, and 83 percent call it a problem in the national government in Kabul.
In 2009, Afghanistan ranked as second-most-corrupt country in the world, after Somalia, according to Transparency International's 2009 corruption perception index.
The U.S. and allied countries are working with Afghan leaders on programs designed to create and train Afghan bureaucrats, judges and lawyers on governance, justice and the rule of law. One such initiative is the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan (PPP), run by the State Department and American legal professionals, which brings Afghans to American universities to study law and attend training programs.
However, former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, who stepped down last fall as U.N. deputy special representative to Afghanistan after alleging widespread election fraud in the Afghan national election, was not hopeful for the programs' success.
At a recent lecture hosted by the Marine Corps University's Middle East Studies program, he pointed out at least three challenges to efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan.
First, he said, training Afghans on the rule of law doesn't necessarily mean it will improve governance in Afghanistan.
"We may get trained Afghan lawyers, but we may not get justice in Afghanistan because we really haven't looked at the root cause of the problem," he said.
The root cause of the problem, he said, is that local power brokers abuse their positions and operate with impunity -- a condition these programs can't change by themselves.
Second, he said, just because there are trained officials in office doesn't mean those power brokers still aren't running things.
"Getting people out of office and getting them out of power are two different matters and we, in a very linear way, have focused very much on getting them out of office," he said. "And we haven't broken the power that they have. And I'm not sure that I see any real way to do it."
Third, he cited weak enforcement mechanisms to uphold the rule of law -- namely, the lack of a competent police force.