Obama Administration sources say the U.S. is undergoing a gut-check about how to approach the Afghan corruption issue. While everyone acknowledges corruption is an important problem that must be addressed, there is concern in the administration that the near-myopic focus on corruption over the last several months is detracting from the bigger picture.
Recent discussions, including a White House meeting on Afghanistan this week, have centered around the most productive way to approach the corruption issue, according to the source. Central to the conversation was how corruption plays into U.S. goals in Afghanistan and what can the U.S. realistically expect in terms of combating corruption.
While Afghanistan has recently been viewed as corrupt from top to bottom, the administration seems to be considering taking a more nuanced view about what actually constitutes corruption, the sources explained. There is the "predatory" corruption that the police and other law enforcement and government officials are engaged in, which affects Afghans' daily lives. That is considered the most dangerous kind, which many in the administration think the U.S. should be focusing on.
But officials realize "baksheesh," the practice of small bribes which are part of doing business in Afghanistan, is never going to be completely eliminated. In short, a police chief on the take which influences arrests of Afghan citizens is dangerous, but is some mid-level official getting a freebie going to be the death of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?
There is a lot of ambivalence and confusion about Karzai in the administration. His often controversial public statements stand in contrast to private discussions, the sources said, and the U.S. is trying to find the right steps to work with him to benefit the U.S. goals. There is a recognition that Karzai is not perfect. But some camps in the administration do think he has legitimate gripes when he speaks of the humiliation he suffers when the international community talks ad nauseam about cleaning up his corrupt country.
When we were in Afghanistan earlier this month, CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty and I often heard the phrase "Afghan good enough." Gen. Petraeus used it when referring to Afghan-led military operations, but we also heard it as it relates to the corruption issue. Officials are now saying that if Karzai genuinely does something to tackle corruption, beyond rhetoric, and if Afghans are actually investigating corruption and prosecuting guilty offenders, then that is the U.S. goal at the end of the day.
The Obama administration is starting to realize that maybe it needs to give Karzai the space to do that. It may not fit the strict U.S. definition of adequate anti-corruption efforts, but if it's "good enough" to satisfy the Afghans, then that could meet U.S. objectives. There are going to be conversations with Karzai and allies about this next week in the UN General Assembly, sources told me.
The administration will be thinking through a lot of these issues as it prepares its next review of the Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, due this December. There is also discussion now about how to explain these complex issues to Congress, which is concerned about U.S. taxpayer dollars fueling corruption, and to an American public who mostly views Afghanistan as a corrupt state. The administration doesn't have easy or pithy answers, officials say. They are simply trying to find the most constructive way to tackle the problem.