Part I: Corruption

In his inauguration speech, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed the importance of the country's fight against corruption and spoke of his commitment to ending "the culture of impunity and violations of law." Afghans, however, reacted warily: they are waiting to see action, which has been in short supply in Afghanistan. Corruption has grown around Karzai like a fungus, touching almost every ministry and office. As Karzai begins his new term, this pervasive culture of graft is blamed for driving a wedge between Afghans and their government -- even driving some toward the Taliban.

Western officials have demanded that the Afghan government take decisive action against corruption, but such pressure may be counterproductive. Karzai has grown increasingly resentful of Western criticism, both because such treatment comes across as disrespectful in Pashtun culture and because Karzai believes that standing up to the United States will make him more popular with Afghans. Pressuring Karzai too often simply pushes him into a defensive crouch.

In a television interview in early November, a week after his former challenger Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of the presidential race, effectively canceling the runoff, Karzai appeared vague about corruption inside his government and seemed to view it as a phenomenon inflicted from the outside. He blamed overseas interests for waste, saying that much of the country's corruption stems from large contracts initiated by foreign governments and companies. "For that sort of corruption, it's the international community that also shares responsibility with us," he said.

For Afghans, corruption falls into three categories: first is petty corruption by lower-level government employees who are looking out for their own survival. Next is large-scale corruption, which is committed by ministers and relatives of top Afghan officials involved in lucrative international contracts or the drug trade. Last is what Karzai described as Western-driven corruption, which begins with the foreign contractors who live conspicuously well in Kabul. They subcontract out work to local Afghans, who then make their own subcontracts with other Afghans. The end result is that the bulk of every aid dollar is wasted. But this, at least by Western standards, is technically legal -- a seeming loophole that many Afghans find absurd, if not hypocritical and offensive.

Making the problem worse is that the Afghan government has few successful examples on which to model a fight against corruption. Karzai and other officials have called for the creation of an anticorruption court that would be similar to the country's drug court -- which has been ineffective at best, if not corrupt itself. The drug court has sentenced only a handful of major players; of those, Karzai pardoned several earlier this year, in a move that caused U.S. officials to pull their hair in frustration. And Mohammad Alim Hanif, one of the few reputedly clean judges on the court, was shot dead more than a year ago. His murder remains unsolved.

Corruption in the country has reached such a scale that Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank executive and presidential candidate, says that a senior Karzai adviser told him that one government minister made $25 million in a single year, and a northern governor, $75 million. Two of Karzai's brothers -- Mahmoud Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai -- and relatives of at least one governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, and the country's defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, have either earned money with questionable tactics or been awarded lucrative Western contracts with little fair competition. They have been helped by their relatives' political clout and suspicious bidding practices.

Some of the shifting public support toward the Taliban is due to the fact that the Taliban, unlike the central government, seem to take such widespread corruption seriously. In 33 of the country's 34 provinces, the Taliban has set up its own anticorruption committees, which allow local Afghans to complain about any injustice, including those inflicted by the Taliban. One Afghan official told me that such committees would be "a good idea" for the government. The Taliban also runs its own courts, which are known for quick justice without the need to pay bribes.

But for now, paying money remains the only way to efficiently accomplish anything with the Afghan government. Daniel Grey, the local head of a large U.S. contracting company that works on roads and power, said that his company refuses to pay bribes. As a result, its work is made more onerous and ultimately more expensive. In one case, the customs department held 13 vehicles for a year before releasing them. Another time, in Kandahar, when Grey's company was trying to load supplies onto a helicopter that costs $16,000 an hour to operate, an Afghan official came over to say that the helicopter would have to be loaded somewhere else. That cost the company an hour of time, or $16,000. But the official just wanted a $100 kickback. "The cost of avoiding a bribe was much more than we ever would have paid for a bribe," Grey said.

Government employees ask for the money with a smile and a rub of an index finger and a thumb. "Shirini?" they sometimes ask, using the Dari word for "sweets," or maybe baksheesh, the word for "tip." Abdul Rahim Chakari, who works at the Ministry of Information and Culture, admitted to me that he takes bribes. "Everyone is miserable," he told me. "I am paid $75 a month. If I don't get bribes, how am I supposed to live?" Just feeding himself and his family, he said, costs $200 a month.

The harsh economics of life in Afghanistan mean that many bribe takers feel no shame. A regional supervisor of the country's traffic police told me that he received about $200 a month in salary. His rent was $100, food for his wife and three children cost $300, other expenses ran $100. In other words, his monthly expenses exceeded his salary by $200, necessitating the acceptance of bribes.

It is this sort of corruption -- the local, petty kind rather than the millions taken by ministers -- that causes Afghans to distrust their government. Safiullah Abidy, the 24-year-old manager of a cosmetics shop in Kabul, said that corruption "is the most dangerous and bad thing in the country," adding that "it is the worst memory we have of the last eight years."

So far, the government's approach to fighting corruption has been almost laughable. In 2008, the country's first anticorruption task force was dissolved because it had no teeth. It probably did not help that Izzatullah Wasifi, the task force's first head, had been convicted of selling heroin in Nevada in the 1980s and then ran into personality problems with Karzai.

A second anticorruption task force was launched a year ago, just after the first disbanded. It was named the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption (HOOAC), but like its predecessor, it also lacks effective enforcement ability -- largely because of early complaints by then Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit, who himself was later accused of corruption.

As a result, when the HOOAC required senior officials to register their assets, only a handful complied, including Karzai and the interior minister. Most simply ignored the requirement without incurring any consequences, including Ismail Khan, a former warlord who is now minister for water and energy; Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former commander now serving as army chief of staff; and many people on the president's own staff. So far, the parliament has not responded to any of the office's letters. "I guess they are afraid," Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy of the HOOAC, told me. "Maybe there are some reasons."

The HOOAC's most notable success was the production of a five-minute documentary on corruption in the police force and in the courts, proof for cabinet ministers who continue to deny that corruption exists. The office has also managed to streamline certain government processes, thereby minimizing the avenues for petty corruption. For example, legally registering a vehicle used to take 51 steps, a month of work, and $40 to $60. A $400 bribe cut that process to three days. The HOOAC, however, has reduced the number of required steps, lowered the turnaround for a license to three days, and required payment only at an official bank.

But, just as with those involved in the country's booming drug trade, no major official has been punished or convicted. With the Taliban threatening the stability of the government and the international community wavering on its commitment to the country, many bureaucrats are seeing this moment as potentially the last opportunity to take what they can.

It appears as if this period will not end as quickly as many in the West are hoping. At the end of November, Afghan Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko announced a corruption probe against current and former government officials, including two unnamed sitting government ministers. So far, Karzai has refused to sign an order that would strip these men of their ministerial immunity and allow them to stand trial.

Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament, told me that enforcement needs to start at the top, with prosecutions of high-profile figures. "If we really bring one big guy to justice, you will see how everyone will fix themselves," he said. "Why were the Taliban so successful fighting corruption? They punished people, and they followed the laws."

Part II: The Warlords

Afghans once derided President Hamid Karzai as a U.S. puppet. After all, he won his office with the backing of the United States and has depended on U.S. assistance to run the country. But as Karzai prepares to name his new cabinet, Afghans are beginning to fear that someone else is pulling the strings: namely, the country's former warlords, who have undergone a political makeover to become what some call Afghanistan's "power brokers."

During the election campaign, Karzai made various promises to different warlords, most of whom gained power during Afghanistan's fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and now both Afghans and Western officials worry that Karzai will honor those pledges, signaling how he plans to run the country for the next five years and who will have his ear.

"Politically, it's an opportunity for Mr. Karzai to become a statesman or an outcast," said Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan finance minister and World Bank executive who ran for president against Karzai. "If he goes with those brokers, both he and the country will be the losers."

Karzai is known to be influenced by the people around him. If he nominates strongmen or their underlings, it will send a clear message to the West that Karzai is not serious about fighting corruption or winning the support of average Afghans through competent governance.

In 2001, when Karzai was named interim president of Afghanistan, he had no militia of his own and few followers. Muhammad Qasim Fahim -- who succeeded Ahmed Shah Massoud as leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance -- controlled much of the armed forces. Another contingent of largely Uzbek fighters aligned with the Northern Alliance was led by Abdul Rashid Dostum, an opportunistic former warlord who had frequently switched sides over the years. In the west, Ismail Khan directed a sizable third faction of the alliance. Karzai had a complicated relationship with all of them -- he was reliant on their support and favor to keep his hold on power.

The international community has been similarly dependent on the country's warlords. To drive out the Taliban in late 2001, the United States largely relied on the support of various warlords. In the north and west, Northern Alliance commanders led the charge against the Taliban with the help of U.S. airstrikes. Gul Agha Sherzai, a Pashtun warlord, seized the southern city of Kandahar, aided by U.S. special forces. And Padshah Khan Zadran pushed the Taliban out of the eastern Paktia province with U.S. assistance.

Ghani said the rise of the so-called power brokers has brought about a de facto return of their rule during the Afghan civil war between 1992 and 1994, which turned Kabul into a giant shooting gallery. But now, Ghani told me, it is even worse, because their rule has the U.S. government's seal of approval.

When I spoke to Karzai last December, he referred to the warlords as "thugs" and blamed the U.S.-led coalition's initial support of them for leading to most of Afghanistan's current problems. "They created militias of those people who had no limits to misbehavior and who were sent to people's homes to search their homes, to arrest them, and to intimidate them," he said. "This has to stop if you want to succeed. Only then we can begin to build the Afghan government."

At some point, however, Karzai seems to have changed his mind. All attempts to set up some kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission for the warlords or to hold them accountable for past crimes or alleged human rights abuses -- especially during the civil war -- failed. And this past year, a massive drop in popularity forced Karzai to align himself with some of the most controversial warlords in order to win votes.
Karzai named Fahim, a powerful Tajik warlord who is one of the richest and most feared men in Afghanistan, as his first vice president -- essentially reversing his decision five years earlier to drop Fahim as vice president due to Western pressure. (In a way, this was expected, considering that Fahim's brother has been in business with Karzai's brother for years, privatizing state-run companies and earning millions.) 

At the same time, Karzai kept Karim Khalili, a former Hazara warlord, as his second vice president. He made promises to influential warlords such as Muhammad Mohaqeq, another former Hazara commander who has grown more powerful than Khalili and now runs a Hazara ethnic political party. Mohaqeq, who ran against Karzai for president in 2004, has said Karzai promised him five cabinet seats in return for his support. 
Over the summer, Karzai reinstated Dostum as army chief of staff. Dostum has been accused of past atrocities such as overseeing the stuffing of hundreds of Taliban prisoners into shipping containers, then leaving them to die. Only the year before, Dostum had been suspended from the largely ceremonial position and forced to flee to Turkey over allegations that he stormed the home of a political rival, Akbar Bai, and threatened to kill him. In November, just after the runoff election was cancelled, Dostum returned to Kabul to claim his prize.

Earlier this month, I went shoe shopping in Kabul's fanciest mall, the City Center, with Sher Mohammad, a key Dostum aide, and Amir Peramqul, one of Dostum's former commanders and now a top deputy. Peramqul had draped the end of his turban across his mouth in order to disguise himself from other Afghans in the mall. Mohammad was crowing about Dostum's success in delivering the Uzbek vote to Karzai. At just that moment, Mohammad told me, Dostum was meeting with Karzai to find out his reward. "Dostum has been promised 20 percent of seats," he said, walking into various stores and asking to see their "diplomatic shoes."

It is an especially remarkable turnaround considering that Karzai has always offered up Dostum as a sacrificial warlord, proof that the Afghan government could prosecute its former commanders. Any time the West wanted to make an example of a warlord, Karzai eagerly suggested Dostum, but the United States and others would balk, most likely because Dostum was seen as a key U.S. supporter.

A former Karzai aide told me confidentially that the Afghan government had wanted to try Dostum last year, after he threatened Bai. "It was the U.S. who opposed it," the former Karzai aide told me, repeating something I had been told by several top Afghan government officials in 2008. "Because Dostum was an ally. It's also the international community that has contributed to the revived power of these men."
Today, most Western officials agree that they want the warlords gone -- although NATO still has to rely on some of them for security in the provinces. One Western diplomat told me that no one wanted to see the return of the mujahideen -- the Islamic fighters who opposed the Soviets in the 1980s -- many of whom became Afghan warlords (whereas some foreign members of the mujahideen went on to form al Qaeda).

It appears that Karzai has made too many promises to too many people to be able to honor them all. "There are a lot of competing demands on him," said Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy of the country's anticorruption commission. Ahmadi described Karzai as "a good president in a bad country" and went on to tell me that Karzai should find some other way to grant tokens of prestige or power to the warlords. "Give them something else," he said, suggesting a possible advisory role that would carry little actual responsibility. "Like the National Council of whatever, 'Dignified Afghans.'"

Another possible solution -- one that Western diplomats fear -- is that Karzai will expand the cabinet from 25 ministers so that he can dole out all the promised seats. But just creating new positions may not satisfy all of Karzai's constituencies. Shinkai Karokhail, a prominent female member of parliament, recalled how when the Uzbeks were once given the Ministry of Women's Affairs slot in return for Uzbek support, they complained. "They said, 'Why don't you give us a ministry led by a man?'"

The West now appears to be minimizing its dependence on Kabul and instead trying to build up its influence on what is happening in the rest of the country. One senior Western military official told me that regardless of who Karzai appoints as ministers, the West may try to avoid the notoriously weak central government and establish ties with local leaders. "Can you win at the local level and ignore the central government?" he said. "In a way, that's our strategy now."

Part III: The Taliban

After 30 years of war, Afghans are accustomed to switching sides -- a fact that the United States often uses to make the case for "flipping" some members of the Taliban. But Afghans typically switch to whichever side they perceive as winning, often meaning the one with the most guns, staying power, and money. In such an environment, rumors can take on the strength of facts, and they indicate which direction those on the fence may be leaning.

On a recent trip to Kabul, I heard some new and telling rumors. Hungry Taliban fighters were so confident that they ordered 150 kebabs from a restaurant in Kandahar; so brazen that they then ate their kebabs right there on the street. Other rumors claimed that the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban were working in concert -- the British were flying insurgents from the south to the north in helicopters, while U.S. soldiers and the Taliban fought together at night.

"The Taliban are also the American people," said Popal Sadat, a 28-year-old manager in a company that sells concrete barriers to guard against bombs at U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan. "They work hand in hand." I asked him to explain. After nine at night, he insisted, U.S. soldiers team up with the Taliban. He knew it was true, he said, because he saw it on television. This was not true; I checked with the station, Tolo TV. But that did not matter.

Although it is easy to dismiss such rumors as simple ignorance, they contain a truth that is damning to U.S. hopes of achieving success on a short timeline -- especially in light of President Barack Obama's pledge to start pulling out troops in July 2011. Not only are Afghans preparing for the worst, but they are also searching for explanations for how, eight years after the war began, the Taliban seems stronger than ever and the United States appears cowed, talking of exit strategies and reconciliation. Most Afghans cannot imagine how a group of bearded mountain men with Kalashnikovs and roadside bombs can really pose such a threat to the all-powerful U.S. military and its technology. (I was told over and over of the U.S. military's ability to strike a target "within three inches.")

The future of Afghanistan, then, is not about military strategy, about which side the Afghans like more, or about democracy and human rights. It is about who the Afghans think will be strongest in five or ten years; it is about picking the winning side, about survival. If Afghans believe that the Taliban-led insurgents plan to be around longer than the more powerful West and are stronger than Afghan government security forces, Afghans will tilt toward the Taliban. And if Taliban leaders and their underlings begin to sense this, they will have no incentive to negotiate or reconcile with the Afghan government or the U.S.-led coalition.

On my recent trip, I met with five senior NATO military officials who told me that the situation in Afghanistan was the worst it had ever been. It was, as they described it, a perfect storm of bad news: a flawed presidential election, a deeply corrupt government, an attack on a UN guesthouse that caused the United Nations to retrench, and a perceived reluctance in Washington about a long-term commitment in Afghanistan.

In past years, I had typically been told that the insurgents had a core group of 3,000 members who could recruit a total of perhaps 10,000 anti-government fighters. But on this trip, I was told that there were as many as 25,000 hard-core fighters -- with as many as 500,000 people waiting to side with whomever seemed to gain the upper hand. As one senior military official told me, "There are a lot more insurgents than we thought."

The Taliban is not a monolithic group. Rather, it is a shorthand term that often includes various entities with similar agendas. But the Taliban leadership council, or shura, in Quetta -- the movement most closely linked with Mullah Muhammad Omar and the former regime in Kabul -- is considered to be the group most interested in actually running Afghanistan, as opposed to merely fighting international troops and creating terror. It is no accident that the most serious challenge posed by any insurgent group to the Afghan government -- and therefore to the U.S. troop surge -- is based in Quetta, a provincial capital in Pakistan. Western military officials said that although the Pakistani military has increased efforts against militants inside its own borders, it must do much more. "I think the Pakistanis are scared to death," one senior official told me. They are especially worried, he said, by "their inability to do anything about it."

The senior official also told me that Omar, the Quetta shura's reclusive leader, had installed five regional military commanders this year -- just as the U.S.-led coalition has in Afghanistan. Several of these were dispatched by the Taliban shura to areas they were not from, showing a growing sophistication in Taliban military strategy that relies on the best military minds and not just homegrown allegiances.

Meanwhile, the Quetta shura has developed shadow governments in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, as well as "redress" committees, where Afghans can complain about Taliban behavior, such as roadside bombs that kill Afghans. Western military officials and diplomats fear that the Taliban insurgents are doing much more than the Afghan government to establish good governance and accountability. The Taliban has also set up committees for aid groups. This means that, in theory at least, if aid groups agree to Taliban conditions and aid gets delivered to remote areas, the Taliban could claim the credit and not the government.

In the remote provinces, the Taliban's efforts have had the effect of reinforcing the image of an absent Afghan central government (or of a government that is present but corrupt). In its place, the Taliban have been able to shore up their footprint across the countryside and display measures of accountability.

This is not just happening in the south, the Taliban's traditional stronghold, but also in the north, in formerly Taliban-free provinces such as Kunduz. Coalition military officials said that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Omar's deputy who is responsible for day-to-day Taliban operations, has started polling Afghans in the north about their satisfaction with the Karzai government and such government services as education.

President Hamid Karzai's plan to solve the morass focuses on reintegrating the Taliban within the Afghan government. In his inauguration speech, he put national reconciliation at the top of the country's attempts to establish peace and said he would soon call a loya jirga, or meeting of tribal elders, to discuss it. "We welcome and will provide necessary help to all disenchanted compatriots who are willing to return to their homes, live peacefully, and accept the constitution," he said. "We invite dissatisfied compatriots who are not directly linked to international terrorism to return to their homeland."

This effort is backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, along with other allies. Taliban leaders, however, have said that they will only negotiate if international forces agree on an exit plan and if the Taliban are able to set up an Islamic state. But considering the election and Karzai's eroding legitimacy, the Taliban seem to have a much stronger negotiating position than Karzai does. They also appear to be closer to al Qaeda than ever before. UN officials told me that the bombing of the UN guesthouse in Kabul was coordinated by the Taliban's Quetta shura, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network, a militant group based in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The United States hopes to be able to win over mid-level Taliban commanders with offers of jobs, protection, and even money. But this will be tough. Afghans remember examples of retribution, such as when Mullah Abdul Salaam Alizai, a former Taliban commander in Helmand, rejoined the government in December 2007, only to see at least 23 of his family members and supporters killed in attacks. Most of the senior former Taliban members who have renounced the group are practically under house arrest in Kabul for their own safety.

Unless Taliban members and their families can be protected in the hinterlands, where the government holds little sway, it is unlikely that many will switch allegiances. Providing such protection in population areas is one of the goals of the increased U.S. troop presence, most especially in Helmand, though extending this sort of shield across the whole country may take far more than 30,000 additional soldiers.

Money is another complicating factor. Past attempts to pay off Afghans to stop growing poppies or to hand over their weapons have been resounding disasters. The poppy program actually increased the poppy supply, because more farmers began growing poppies so they could then get money to stop; while many Afghans handed over ancient weapons expecting compensation. Recently, a man claiming to be an Uzbek member of the Taliban showed up at the U.S. embassy in Kabul saying he could guarantee the reconciliation of 300 Uzbek Taliban members -- that is, if he were paid enough money.

In the end, Afghans say, reconciliation will only stand a chance if the West sticks around. Obama's talk of starting to pull out as soon as the summer of 2011 will likely fuel suspicion that the United States already has one foot out the door.

"We need to recognize how long it's going to take," said Ashraf Ghani, a candidate in the last Afghan presidential election and the co-author of Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. "How long?" I asked. Seven years, Ghani said, and no matter what, he added, some Taliban members "may never change."

This is a number that is sure to frighten many policymakers in Washington, including the president himself. No matter how long U.S. forces stay to battle the Taliban, the ordeal is sure to tire many Afghans, most of whom have never lived a year without fighting.

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  • KIM BARKER is Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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