Monday, 20 October 2008
In an alarming dispatch from Afghanistan, the Conservative MP reveals the rampant corruption that has infected public life and threatens to destroy Nato's hopes of bringing peace to this traumatised country
It is time to face facts in Afghanistan: the situation is spiralling downwards, and if we do not change our approach, we face disaster. Violence is up in two-thirds of the country, narcotics are the main contributor to the economy, criminality is out of control and the government is weak, corrupt and incompetent. The international coalition is seen as a squabbling bunch of foreigners who have not delivered on their promises. Although the Taliban have nowhere near majority support, their standing is growing rapidly among some ordinary Afghans.
In Kabul, foreign delegations huddle behind concrete and barbed wire, often with the Afghans' main roads shut. That causes jams throughout the city, exacerbated by convoys of armoured four-wheel drives loaded with bodyguards that push their way through the traffic. These vehicles carry warning signs telling ordinary Afghans that the occupants reserve the right to shoot anyone who comes within 50 metres. Afghans veer between resentment of the high-handed foreigners and fear of the Taliban, who appear to be inexorably seizing the provinces around the city.
In Britain's area of responsibility, Helmand, the governor admits the Taliban control most of the province. While we were, properly, celebrating the delivery of the turbine to the Kajaki dam, we were being forced out of one of the richest poppy growing areas, and the Taliban fought their way to within 12km of Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital. Time after time, our soldiers win tactical victories, only to have the advantage lost because of a lack of coherent international strategy.
The regime we are defending is corrupt from top to bottom. While the President's brother faces accusations of being a drug baron, some three-quarters of the Afghan National Police actively steal from the people. The irony is that Afghan expectations of government are traditionally low, and their faith in President Hamid Karzai was initially high.
The government appears to have been run for the financial benefit of 20 families. From the allocation of mineral rights to the awarding of contracts, ministers frequently intervene to favour families and friends. Even more disturbing, the beneficiaries of this corruption are old-time warlords and faction leaders responsible for past atrocities. Today, they operate with impunity, even over acts of violence and attempted murder. Many public officials, from police chiefs to governors to ministers, have acquired multi-million dollar fortunes in office.
This angers the ordinary Afghan, whose family may have to get by on £10 a week. The government exercises enormous patronage through the appointment of officials, most notably governors and police chiefs. A chief of police post in a district which includes a narcotic trafficking route can sell for $150,000. The new chief recovers his "investment" by demanding a cut in the proceeds of corruption from his juniors. At the bottom of this pyramid, officers make money out of ordinary Afghans by exacting "tolls"at roadblocks and by straight theft and extortion. An Afghan trying to take produce from Lashkar Gar to Kandahar will typically pay at 12 roadblocks – destroying any value he might gain from growing anything other than opium.
It can be worse. An Afghan doctor was stopped and arrested by police, who demanded a $20,000 ransom – a fortune. He borrowed the money and paid. The alternative was death.
For an ordinary Afghan trying to scratch a living out of the arid soil, this must be almost unbearable, particularly so when he sees rapists and murderers, even failed suicide bombers, released without charge after payment of a bribe.
That is the regime we are defending and are perceived to be supporting.
The Taliban play on this. They offer a system of courts which is fast, decisive, and effective. An Afghan living in a non-Taliban part of a southern province, who has a dispute – over property, immigration rights, or a criminal matter – is quite likely to go to the Taliban area and ask them to arbitrate. They will summon both parties, hear their petitions, spend a few days collecting evidence – and then issue, and enforce, a judgement.
They can be vicious and evil at times. They hanged an old woman for the crime of talking to a foreign development officer. They behead people who oppose them or help Nato. These executions are carried out in town centres, where they strike most terror.
The Taliban make about 40 per cent of their funds from drug trafficking, which Nato, and the UK, facilitated by initially naive and incompetent policies. This allows the Taliban another grip on the rural population.
So the ordinary Afghan must feel caught between competing protection rackets in the police, the Taliban, the narco-bandits and the warlords.
There are some glimmers of light. The Afghan Attorney General is in a battle with warlords and cabinet ministers, although, without action from the President, he cannot win.
Helmand, the province defended by the British, is near the centre of this maelstrom of crime and violence. It has recently got a governor, Gulab Mangal, who appears determined to crack down on crime and corruption.
A senior Foreign Office official tells the story of two brothers and their attractive sister who were stopped at a roadblock. The officer had the brothers arrested and dragged the girl to his office, presumably intent on rape. An ordinary soldier knocked the officer out and called Governor Mangal's new helpline, rescuing the girl and brothers. So there are signs of change.
Afghan despair at this breakdown of justice has been a factor in the Taliban resurgence. In the past few years, it has led to 14,500 deaths. Monthly deaths of Allied soldiers here now exceed those in Iraq. Aid workers are being kidnapped and killed. The major road network is largely unusable because of risk of attack. In Helmand, we control five town centres, but rural areas and roads are dominated by the Taliban. Kandahar is little better. The problem is spreading.
So we need a new strategy. It should include a new command structure that co-ordinates the various forces. Short term, we need more coalition troops – ones that will fight, unlike some Nato forces. In the longer term, we need a bigger Afghan National Army – one British officer said at least double its projected size. To match Iraq it would need to be at least five times its projected size.
Most of all, we must deliver a much better life for ordinary Afghans. That requires better justice. At the national level, the impunity of the drug barons, warlords, and political influence peddlers must be broken. This will take high-profile trials of powerful people. At the local level, it means a quicker, more traditional justice by councils of tribal elders. And it means root and branch reform or replacement of the Afghan National Police.
Along with more rapid development efforts and a more focused counter-narcotics effort, this will deliver a better life for Afghans, and deny the Taliban legitimacy.
Whoever wins the US presidential election will have a clean slate on Afghanistan, and should tell the Karzai government that Western support comes with a price, namely clean government and decent justice. Mr Karzai himself faces elections next September. His success is not guaranteed. The biggest election issues will be justice and security.
There are other good omens. It seems that in the past few months the Pakistani government has at last started doing something about the Taliban safe houses in the tribal areas. Back in Britain, the newly promoted General David Richards has experience of Afghanistan, and a clear-eyed view of the need to increase force levels to achieve an acceptable outcome. At last, the West has stopped deluding itself that it is winning this battle, and will recognise that the consequences of not rethinking our strategy are too dreadful to contemplate.
David Davis is the MP for Haltemprice and Howden and the former shadow home secretary. He has recently returned from a 10-day fact-finding trip to Afghanistan.