Inherited wars, inherited corruption
TONIGHT, PRESIDENT Obama will likely commit 30,000 to 35,000 more soldiers to the war in Afghanistan, boosting the troop total to about 100,000. News reports say he will announce a timetable for withdrawal. One more thing is needed. The troop total and the timetable must be tied to an unmistakable ultimatum to Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Clean up corruption, or we are gone much sooner.
Afghanistan is ranked the world’s second-most corrupt country, second only to Somalia, by Transparency International. The corruption is so rampant that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month said on ABC, “I have made it clear that we are not going to be providing any civilian aid to Afghanistan unless we have a certification that, if it goes into the Afghan government in any form, that we are going to have ministries that we can hold accountable.’’
Obama inherited two wars from President Bush, with no stability in sight in either. In Iraq, where we still have 115,000 troops, Obama plans to have combat troops out by next summer and the remaining 50,000 support and training troops out by the end of 2011. That plan is already being complicated by Iraqi delays for national elections. Even if elections occur in time for an orderly US withdrawal, there is little sign that our six years of invasion and occupation will amount to anything but a tragic waste.
The invasion was launched by Bush under false pretenses, and fittingly, a corrupt war set in motion an equally corrupt reconstruction. Billions of dollars of no-bid projects went to Vice President Dick Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton and its subsidiaries. Halliburton and other contractors fully abused the lack of scrutiny by bilking taxpayers billions more dollars in costs that could not be accounted for.
In Obama’s first month in office, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said, “There was a lot of waste, billions of dollars in waste.’’ Noting how the Bush administration’s promises of spending only $2.4 billion in reconstruction exploded to $53 billion, the largest reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan, Bowen said, “The United States government does not have neither the structure nor the resources to take on such an enterprise.’’
Worse, whatever was built for that $53 billion may crumble after US troops leave. The New York Times recently reported that Iraq remains in such chaos that it does not have personnel with expertise to staff and maintain the new water treatment plants, power plants, hospitals, schools, and oil rigs and pipelines. One military hospital is closed with $7.9 million of medical equipment inside. A $98 million wastewater treatment plant services only a third of its intended homes. Civilian hospitals either have equipment but untrained doctors, or trained doctors and no equipment.
That is a mistake we do not want to make in Afghanistan. Yet, Bowen said in October, “We already have repeated a number of those mistakes.’’ More ominous, Bowen said, “Afghanistan is in a much more rudimentary state and much less developed than Iraq is. For example, about 90 percent of the new army recruits there are illiterate, not the case in Iraq. The construction of an electrical system is essentially from scratch. The rebuilding of local governance, again, is a new enterprise. So the investment is going to have to be extensive and it will take a long time for meaningful progress to be made.’’
If reconstruction is going to take that long, and investment of both troops and aid that extensive, it should clearly be conditioned on whether Afghanistan shows signs of getting its house in order. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States will not fund projects where it is the only one writing the checks.
But all that means little if Obama, the check-writer in chief, does not make a strong statement about Afghanistan cleaning up corruption. We have already spent too long fighting two wars without aim and with little thought as to the cost and consequences. If Karzai is not held accountable, any surge is sure to be a waste.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.