During the Second Afghan War (1878-1880) there was a particularly competent British army officer called Henry Brooke whose well-written diaries of the period are published as Brigade Commander: Afghanistan. He had little time for Afghans, and in April 1880 wrote that “An Afghan is so natural a liar that no one thinks of believing them, and among themselves they are never weak enough to put any trust one in the other, and in this they are quite wise as a more treacherous set of lying beings do not, I suppose, exist on the face of the world.”
Of course it is not politically correct in this enlightened age to heed the words of an imperialist creature of a British Raj that was intent on crushing innocent people who were living lives of moral cloudlessness, agreeable democracy and social tranquillity before being subjected to the attentions of the dreaded colonialists. But in spite of that, you do have to admit that Brooke had a point – and that perhaps his point remains relevant today. And he could have added some words about corruption to his observations.
Along with North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the world’s most corrupt country, and some of its most influential citizens have worked hard to achieve that deplorable ranking.
Certainly there is much sleaze elsewhere – in Pakistan, for example, which is 37th in the world dishonesty list. India’s standing is less awful, but its rip-off quotient is majestically greater, with, for example, the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 having involved embezzlement of over a billion dollars, according to the current New Yorker.
None of this can be excused, of course, but in Afghanistan corruption has achieved an art form and is probably one of the gravest problems the country has to face. It starts right at the top. In April, the New York Times reported that, “For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president – courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency. All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the CIA to the office of President Hamid Karzai … An American official said ‘The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan [is] the United States’.”
Now that’s pretty blunt, but perhaps just this once the US is not entirely to blame for the shambles in a country it invaded. The CIA and other foreign organizations certainly helped, but the final responsibility for corruption throughout Afghanistan rests with Afghans themselves.
The head of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, Jean Luc Lemahieu, said in February that “The bribes that Afghan citizens paid in 2012 equal double Afghanistan’s domestic revenue.” This revelation attracted no condemnatory reaction from President Karzai or any other influential Afghan, which is not surprising because he and many members of his government and officialdom are the main benefactors from the sleaze that swamps their country.
Karzai’s character was well described by US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in a leaked cable in which he wrote of “a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building”. That sums him up very well. His posturing on the world stage has been as unimpressive as it has been counterproductive – and his August visit to Pakistan was both.
Afterwards, Karzai said he had asked Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to provide a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban. But of course he well knows that Pakistan has been trying for years to facilitate dialogue. (As do the Americans who so vociferously blame Pakistan for allegedly failing to do anything to help resolve the chaos caused by their amateur dabbling in that admittedly bewildering country.)
Yet Kabul has itself imposed a block on the way to improving relations with Islamabad, illustrated by Karzai earlier this year when he declared that, “Since the Durand line [international border] has been imposed on Afghanistan, it was not acceptable to the Afghans and we cannot accept the Durand line.”
This is patently nonsense and entirely counter-productive. The border has been acknowledged by Afghanistan for many years – except when convenient to flap red herrings in the way of progress to dialogue. Karzai is well-deserving of Eikenberry’s observations that he lacks the ability “to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building” and that given his “reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism”.
Barely believably, Hamid Karzai holds a major British Order of Chivalry, having accepted appointment as an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 2003. (On occasions Her Majesty the Queen has to appoint some pretty queer fish to such eminence on the “advice” of the prime minister of the day, who at Karzai knight-time was the egregious Tony Blair.)
It is strange that the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan should accept an honor that commemorates two Christian holy men, but perhaps it serves to highlight the fact that he is himself no saint. He has not served his country well in the chaotic years of his presidency, and his endorsement of corruption will have disastrous effects for long after he has departed.
Unfortunately, so, too, will his legacy of general incompetence and hostility to Pakistan – the only country that Afghanistan can rely on in the long term. There are lots of pieces to be picked up in Afghanistan, but Pakistan should stay on the sidelines for the moment, quietly continuing contact with all parties and waiting for a more balanced and competent leader in Kabul. And always bearing in mind the opinion (which might be exaggerated, of course) that “An Afghan is so natural a liar that no one thinks of believing them …”.
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Brian Cloughley is a former soldier who writes on military and political affairs, mainly concerning the sub-continent. The fourth edition of his book A History of the Pakistan Army is to be published next month.