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Afghanistan Sinking?

In December of 2006, in the midst of ongoing struggles in the Iraq war, the US Army and US Marine Corps published a new field manual (FM 3-24) on the subject of counterinsurgency – or COIN, as it is known in the acronym-laden world of defense policy. The product of an intense effort at the Army’s Doctrine Division at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the new manual provided a detailed and sophisticated analysis of the character and requirements of that difficult mission. Championed by the Army’s most visible and respected senior officer, General David Petraeus, the COIN field manual was received with acclaim and subsequently it was given credit for helping to improve a terrible situation when it was applied in Iraq.

FM 3-24 covers a lot of ground in its 280 pages, but certain passages leap out as particularly important. In its articulation of the principles of counterinsurgency, it has a clear statement of what is essential: “The primary objective of any COIN campaign is to foster effective governance by a legitimate government.” (p. 1-21) A few paragraphs on, the COIN field manual is similarly bold and stark about the consequences if this “primary objective” is not achieved: “A COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the host nation government achieving legitimacy.” Here then, in the carefully considered judgment of the US military, is the core concern and the key metric in waging counterinsurgency campaigns.

If effective legitimate government in the host nation is the decisively important prerequisite for successful counterinsurgency, then Dexter Filkins’s latest account in The New Yorker (February 14 & 21) of corruption and incompetence in Afghanistan is devastating in its implications. Filkins lays out in enormous detail evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, which proceeds with almost total impunity.

Corruption in Afghanistan is hardly a new story, of course, but Filkins shows that it pervades the highest levels and the furthest reaches of Afghan society. “Graft,” he writes, “infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens….The Afghan government does not so much serve the people as prey upon them.” Among the elites, with billions of American dollars sloshing around, hundreds of millions go missing — $900 million in the biggest scandal so far discovered, the Kabul Bank “heist” (as Filkins describes it). Filkins quotes an unnamed America official describing the Afghan government as “a vertically integrated criminal enterprise.” The corruption, in short, seems as bad as ever – in fact, worse than ever. What this means is that years of American efforts in Afghanistan to promote good government and stifle corruption have failed – failed utterly and catastrophically, if Filkins’s account is remotely correct. Continue reading >

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