Before I proceed, I would like to stipulate that I know and like Tom Schweich. He came into his job as coordinator for counter-narcotics and rule of law in Afghanistan with virtually no background on the subject and read into his brief very quickly and impressively. He is very smart, and he works harder than I do. Unfortunately, he has no idea what Afghanistan is.
(For a detailed analysis of the drug economy in Afghanistan, counter-narcotics policy, and the fallacies of arguments like Schweich's see the report I co-authored with Jake Sherman.)
(Another point: drugs is by far the largest industry in the Afghan economy, probably accounting for a quarter to a third of GDP. It is not a "deviant" activity in the sociological sense. As a political scientist, I don't know of any government in the world that does not have relations with the owners of its country's largest industry and biggest employer. There was a very good essay on this general problem, not focusing on Afghanistan, by a Hungarian World Bank economist. I'll post the link as soon as I can find it.)
I'm going to criticize the Bush administration later in this post (no fainting please), but the basic error Tom makes is not limited to the Bush administration, Republicans, people on the right, or Americans. Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group and many others (for example in my own human rights community, if I have not yet been excommunicated) make the same mistake, which we might call the Can Opener Assumption.
According to a story I heard in graduate school, a chemist, a physicist, and an economist were stranded on a desert island where their only provisions were canned food. How would they eat? The chemist tried to analyze the composition of the metal and searched for materials that would rapidly corrode it. The physicist sought to create a lens out of palm leaves and sea water to concentrate the sun's energy enough to pierce the metal. All failed. Finally, they turned to the economist to ask his advice.
The economist examined the can. After reflection he said: "In principal the problem is very simple. First, assume the existence of a can opener."
In this case, the solution is: assume the existence of a state.
Tom summarizes President Karzai's view as:
"[Mr Karzai] perceives that there are certain people he cannot crack down on and that it is better to tolerate a certain level of corruption than to take an aggressive stand and lose power."I imagine that is a fair statement of President Karzai's view. He has decided not to lose power trying to do things that might fail disastrously. Tom never says that Karzai is wrong about this, so I wonder what his objection is. Maybe such a grim analysis is contrary to his moral principles.
I happen to think that the President of Afghanistan does not have to be that weak, and there is more he could do, though not the way Tom recommends. But Tom tells us a few things he does not comment on, and he refers to a few things he does not say explicitly, that might explain some of President Karzai's problems.
I'm going to make this short, because there is nothing new here. The Bush administration responded to 9/11 by arming and funding every commander they could find to fight the Taliban, regardless of criminal past or involvement in drug trafficking. Then they refused to get involved in "nation building" activity and instead got other "lead nations" to be responsible for various security issues with insufficient funding and capacity, including counter-narcotics. Then, every time that President Karzai tried to remove one of the U.S.-funded commanders from a position, Donald Rumsfeld would warn him against it and say the US would not back him if there was a problem.
Then the Bush administration decided narcotics in Afghanistan was a problem, but since they didn't want to move against the power holders, they decided to attack the poor -- at least they are consistent in their domestic and foreign policy: eradication, eradication, eradication. They wanted to have a "balanced" policy in Afghanistan: alongside our counter-insurgency policy we should also have a pro-insurgency policy. Karzai resisted that too.
(The charge about poverty is the one that upsets Tom the most. He cites the UN, actually the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, which argues that poverty and poppy cultivation are not connected and says he would not support a policy that attacked the poor. I am analyzing the effect of the policies not the intentions behind them. See our report for an explanation of the poor data and statistical fallacies on which UNODC bases its claim. The World Bank takes the position that "Dependence on opium cultivation is associated with poverty.")To his credit, Tom tried to introduce more incentives and more enforcement. It is very good that he compiled a list of corrupt officials with data that would hold up in a US court (and he is a law professor, not, I think of the Yoo/Addington variety, so he should know). But just who did he think was going to arrest or fire these people?
It's simple: assume the existence of a state.
What does this mean? Tom Schweich says that Afghanistan's Attorney-General, Abdul Jabbar Sabit, says he wanted to arrest 20 corrupt officials and that Karzai stopped him. Unlike Tom, I have known Sabit for 20 years. He helped me in my research by introducing me to some of his colleagues in Hizb-i Islami. But I would not necessarily take everything he says literally.
Actually Sabit did try to arrest a corrupt official one time, General Din Muhammad Jurat, one of the most powerful Northern Alliance commanders in the Ministry of the Interior. The upshot was that Jurat detained Sabit and disarmed and beat his men. This was not in a remote area on the Pakistan border but less than an hour's drive north of Kabul in an area considered to be under "government" control. What does that mean? It means that Jurat and people like him are the government. There is no state that operates independently of power holders like Jurat. The project is to build such a state, not assume its existence and use it based on that false assumption.
The same applies to Samina Ahmed's incoherent critique of "talking to the Taliban," though at times she opposes negotiating with the Taliban and at other time accepting the Taliban's most extreme demands, as if this were the same as talking to them (this is the John Bolton approach to diplomacy: surrender first, then we'll discuss the terms). (Samina is also a friend, but I wonder if ICG takes the same position on Hamas, Hizbullah, or Iran?)
According to Samina, the international community should first build a state in Afghanistan and then negotiate the Taliban's surrender. Talking now would just be a "quick fix" that would not work. First we should build a functioning nation-state, and then construct the political agreement on which it will be based. Sounds good to me! And how do we build that state without a political agreement? Assume the existence of legitimacy.