American officials received persistent, stark warnings that Afghanistan’s entrenched culture of official corruption would undermine their efforts to rebuild that country after the West’s military invasion 15 years ago, according to recently declassified diplomatic cables and internal government reports.Suppose we all agree that corruption in Hamid Karzai's government and other Afghan power centers ultimately made it impossible to create a stable, more-or-less democratic Afghanistan.
The diversion of Afghan resources and Western aid for private gain would, the public and private reports all said, drain vitally needed funds from the country’s reconstruction and alienate its citizenry. That would in turn fuel renewed public support for the West’s enemy—the Taliban, whose social brutality notoriously included draconian punishments for official corruption.
But the U.S. officials in charge of rebuilding the country largely failed to heed these alarms, according to their own assessments. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts,” said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador from 2011 to 2012, in a newly released interview with a team of official auditors, is Afghanistan’s corruption.
What was any American supposed to do about it? Blaming American decision makers for "ignoring" Afghan corruption seems ridiculous to me. What else could they have done? The US put a huge effort into building Karzai up as Afghanistan's legitimate ruler, partly because there just wasn't anyone else available to fill that role. One reason Karzai had as much success as he did was that he was very much plugged into the traditional Afghan power structure. And that power structure was and probably always has been corrupt. I have never seen any credible alternate scenario to going all-in with the only Afghan friends we had.
Various American agencies came up with various anti-corruption plans, which were never really implemented. They were never implemented because 1) Karzai refused to cooperate, and 2) implementing them would have meant taking serious action against the very people we needed to fight the Taliban. I am reminded of a point David has made several times in the comments here, that small client countries can be very skilled at manipulating their great power backers. Any time we tried to interfere in the way Karzai and his friends were operating, he went on a nationalist tear, delivering anti-US speeches and making it clear he would rather lose US support than accept American dictates. Maybe he was bluffing, but really our leverage was very limited. Ultimately we cared more about fighting the Taliban than Karzai did; he would be very happy to let them rule the southern half of the country and export as much opium and terrorism as they want in return for control of Kabul and the north.
The notion that we could have simultaneously fought the Taliban, built up an Afghan government friendly to our interests, and completely remade the political culture of Afghanistan is the worst kind of neocolonial hubris. Spare me this sort of armchair moralizing.