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Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan II: “A cancer eating away at the country”


 

From the press briefing that Luiza posted this morning, Richard Holbrooke on corruption:

I would just point you to the fact that no American chief executive has spoken about corruption this way ever before in open. Isn’t that a fair statement, Bruce? And on the way out, a former Assistant Secretary of State, who many of you know, but I better not give his name… he said to me, ‘I’ve been waiting six years to hear a speech like that, and the emphasis on corruption is essential.’ You’ve all been reporting it for years. We view it as a cancer eating away at the country and it has to be dealt with. And obviously we’re not going to lay out how we’re going to deal with it. To some extent, we don’t know yet…

“Now we’ve been offered the extraordinary challenge of trying to deal with this problem. And we’re here to say, it is at the highest levels. Why? This isn’t baksheesh [petty endemic bribery of low-level officials — pw]. We’ve got to make a distinction between ordinary problems that happen in every society. This is massive efforts that undermine the government. President Karzai himself has said this, and we need to work on this. It’s a huge recruiting draw — excuse me, huge recruiting opportunity for the Taliban. It’s one of their major things they exploit.”

Reading this I was reminded of something I heard 18 months ago in Kandahar from Sarah Chayes, the former U.S. radio reporter who now lives in Afghanistan, and whose latest op-ed I posted this morning. Chayes has an odd conflictual/cooperative relationship with ISAF officials in Kandahar. What my group saw was typical: military and civilian officials gave us the official briefing, whose message was that this mission is a challenge but it’s not going too badly. Then there was a pause, and Chayes came in and offered the direst, bleakest report you could imagine. Then the officials thanked her and said, well, you know, it’s not quite as bad as Sarah is saying… Apparently this two-step is not uncommon. From the article I wrote after that first trip to Afghanistan:

Chayes, the former journalist, said ISAF’s troop-lending countries need to stop making excuses for the Afghan government and confront it with “a really consistent message: ‘You are screwing up our battle space by being a crappy government. You are creating three Taliban for every Taliban we catch.’ ”

One high-ranking ISAF military officer had a similar thought. “I have long thought the message we should send to the Afghan people should be the image of a coalition soldier holding a rifle in one hand and a shovel in the other and saying, ‘I’ve got the will and the capability to use either. Which would you have me use?’ Now I think it’s time to replace the rifle with a crescent wrench. And the message now should be, to the Afghan leadership, ‘We are gonna take the training wheels off this bicycle. You boys had better start pedalling.’ ”

The patronizing attitude of an overbearing Western soldier? Perhaps, but Daoud Sultanzoy makes almost the same point. He is a prominent independent member of parliament, urbane, perfectly fluent in English, a critic of Karzai’s regime. “Six years have been spent on baby steps with this government,” Sultanzoy said. “You’ve been spoonfeeding them and they don’t even want to chew.”

Time to chew.

ALSO BY INKLESS WELLS: Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan Part I, Part III, Part IV
ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: An exclusive photo gallery from Pakistan’s dangerous Swat Valley


 

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