The key to a viable Afghanistan, one that is stable and peaceful and commands the allegiance of a majority of its citizens, is an honest and credible government. The Taliban and other insurgencies are a threat, but they gain traction only because Afghans feel that the government in Kabul does not look out for their interests. Corruption is a corrosive that destroys the legitimacy and viability of the government.

That is why the failure of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to crack down on corruption in his administration and among his political allies is so dangerous. Instead of cleaning up government, Mr. Karzai has been blocking efforts to clean out corrupt politicians. The result is not only eroding support for his government among Afghans, but deepening divisions among allied countries trying to stabilize Afghanistan.

The scale of the problem is staggering. Not only is there theft — it is reckoned that $1 billion intended to rebuild Afghanistan is illegally taken out of the country through Kabul airport — but the readiness of government officials to look the other way has led to an explosion in opium production, and a virtual flood of heroin around the world. The diversion and misuse of billions of dollars of reconstruction funds contributes to the strengthening of local warlords, a commensurate weakening of the power of the central government, and the alienation of growing numbers of Afghans. The Taliban may be harsh, but they are generally perceived as honest. (And sometimes corruption results in the diversion of money, weapons and information directly into the hands of the Taliban.)

This sad state of affairs is no secret. Yet, remarkably, Mr. Karzai has been reluctant to crack down on corrupt officials in his government and among his allies. Critics say the number of prosecutions blocked exceeds two dozen and includes Cabinet ministers, ambassadors and provincial governors. In one case, one of Mr. Karzai’s closest aides was reportedly captured on tape demanding a bribe from another Afghan seeking help in halting a corruption investigation

Mr. Karzai admits that he has thwarted prosecutions but he says it is because the investigations violated the rights of the accused and occur in a manner “reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union.” He called the head of an anticorruption unit into his office for questioning; on Aug. 25 the man was fired and the president said he would take direct control of two investigating groups set up last year to combat corruption, but he appears to be backing off in the face of ferocious opposition from the West.

No doubt, Mr. Karzai is concerned about overly zealous prosecution. Respect for law is a new phenomenon in Afghanistan and the government has to set an example. But the real reason for his reluctance is concern that cleaning house will deprive him of critical political support. The principal targets are some of his closest allies — which makes sense, as those people are in the best position to divert funds and misuse their power. The president worries that a serious anticorruption drive would undercut his case — and he has argued that the West’s insistence on cleaning up his government is intended to weaken him politically.

Mr. Karzai knows he is in a vulnerable position. The government in Kabul has limited authority beyond the city limits. He worries that the West’s current commitment to Afghanistan will prove as fleeting as those of the past. The promise of President Barack Obama to begin pulling American fighting forces from Afghanistan by July 2011 may be intended to make the Afghans take responsibility for their own affairs, but it also encourages them to start planning for the day foreign forces are gone.

To stay in power, Mr. Karzai needs to reach out to other power centers in the country; if that means turning a blind eye to their indiscretions and their criminal acts, he is prepared to oblige. While foreigners argue such policies are short-sighted and only undermine the legitimacy of the president and his government, the president insists such thinking is naive. Long-term survival demands short-term compromise. Well-intentioned outsiders have to adapt to Afghanistan’s domestic political reality.

The need to keep foreign friends on his side is equally pressing, however. That is why Mr. Karzai has said he will continue to keep fighting corruption, even if it hits close to home. He will continue to consolidate power, too. That is why he has demanded that private security firms in Afghanistan cease operations by the end of the year. He is right to note that those operations are a “parallel security structure” that undermine lower-paid government security forces, some of whose employees may well moonlight as insurgents.

The president’s biggest concern is ensuring that he controls most of the country’s firepower. That is a tall order in a country built on warlordism, but there is no reason to undercut his own power by encouraging the spread of private armies.

The same logic should apply to his fight against corruption.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.