U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has been crippled by profound flaws since the decision to intervene was made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Most flaws stem from a view of the mission that remained consistently -- across both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations -- constrained to combating the immediate violent manifestations of extremism: terrorist actions, or plans to conduct them, against U.S. interests.

With that focus on symptoms trumping all other considerations, U.S. policy ironically fanned the flames of the very extremism it was supposedly trying to counter. It succeeded in driving a country that was desperate to be rid of Taliban rule back into the Taliban's arms, because the alternative, for many Afghans, was not a lot better. And it is leaving behind a region even more laden with extremist currents, and more volatile and unstable, than it was in 2001.

Chayes, formerly special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is an expert in South Asia policy, kleptocracy and anticorruption, and civil-military relations.
Sarah Chayes
Senior Associate
Democracy and Rule of Law Program
South Asia Program
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Inside Afghanistan, this terrorism fixation played itself out in a willingness to cultivate any self-styled Afghan leader so long as he made it look like he was helping to target the Taliban. In the first years, this meant ushering warlords -- often the same blood-drenched criminals Afghans had repudiated in turning to the Taliban in the early 1990s -- back into the country and into power. President Hamid Karzai's tentative move to curb these reborn strongmen in the spring of 2003 was overridden by U.S. officials, leaving him little alternative but to conciliate them. Over time, gorged on U.S. material and moral support and their resulting impunity, these men evolved into a set of overlapping, vertically integrated criminal syndicates that, at best, masqueraded as a government.

Allied with this monster, unwilling to make the least effort to bring it to heel, the U.S. government tried -- and predictably failed -- to gain traction against the burgeoning Taliban, whose alarming expansion had attracted U.S. attention by 2008.

The excuses not to address abusive public corruption were rife. Corruption, international civilian and military officials repeatedly countered when I raised the issue, was "cultural." It was the way Afghans do business. Yet, in nearly 10 years living among the population in Kandahar, I only heard that argument from foreigners. Afghans were incensed at the corruption we internationals were enabling, and they defined it precisely: Any time a person had to use money to make a public servant do his job, or could use it to make him refrain from doing his job, that was corruption. Or, as one weather-beaten grape-grower from the western outskirts of Kandahar put it: "When a district governor grabs all the reconstruction money for himself and surrounds himself with armed thugs so the people can't reach him to bring their complaints, that's corruption."

Corruption, went the international consensus, would take decades to root out. (The implication: So why bother starting now?) More recently, some have argued that to survive, Karzai has to buy off the corrupt power-brokers -- that he is in effect just a politician, using political pork to keep his band of rivals in check. The way retired U.S. Ambassador James Dobbins recently framed this argument, corruption is actually holding Afghanistan together: "Karzai has built an effective patronage network that allows him to exert a significant degree of influence across sectarian lines in that country and across geographic lines in the country. And formal institutions of the kind that have been built … simply aren't up to exerting that degree of control and influence."

This argument suffers from two flaws. First, were it not for initial U.S. support, those power brokers would not have been in such an impregnable position. Second, Karzai and the members of his network are not synonymous with Afghan stability. It is not Karzai who is likely to swell the ranks of the Taliban (though he has threatened to do just that). Ordinary Afghans are the ones who join the insurgency, and ignoring their legitimate grievances with a government the West has essentially installed over them is a pretty good way to get them to do so.

During the brief period culminating in late 2010 when the United States did pay some lip service to using its leverage to address Afghan government corruption, the favored analysis sliced the problem into separate morsels -- the better to ignore some of them. Afghanistan, U.S. State Department officials argued, suffered from three species of corruption: "petty" corruption, otherwise known as "functional" corruption, which greases the machinery so is better left alone; "grand" corruption, often too politically explosive to grapple with; and "predatory" corruption, the real problem, for it serves as an irritant in Afghans' everyday lives. An interagency anti-corruption plan drafted in September 2010 essentially boiled such predatory corruption down to police shakedowns at checkpoints and during searches, and it put the NATO military training mission in charge of addressing predatory corruption.

Such a description and limited prescription ignore how structured and vertically integrated Afghanistan's kleptocracy has grown. The police officer working a lucrative corner in Kandahar city has rented his spot on the street. He pays a portion of his shakedowns to his immediate superior, who pays a share in turn up the line -- which reaches through the provincial police chief to the interior minister. Kandahar judges send a monthly cut of the money they extract for favorable decisions to the chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court. Governorships are for sale. In return for the cash flowing upward in this structure, Karzai guarantees those below him protection from any repercussions. From my vantage point at the international military headquarters in Kabul, where I advised two commanders, I watched him block search warrants, demote prosecutors, and release key corruption suspects from preventive detention -- all while mouthing enough anti-corruption rhetoric to assuage international officials.

How U.S. officials expected Afghans to take risks on behalf of a government that was preoccupied with shaking them down, not improving their lives, is hard to understand. But the persistence of this illogical dogma, as well as the heavy emphasis -- under both Bush and Obama -- on the military dimensions of the Afghanistan engagement, on how many troops should be sent when and where, points to a broader problem with the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. decision-makers seem paradoxically more apt to take military risks than diplomatic or political risks. Afghan corruption and governance -- like the tissue of grievances that might give rise to extremism in the African Sahel or in Yemen, or the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, or the challenges of expanding diplomatic channels with China -- are seen as too difficult, too complex, to engage. So, for a decade, the interagency debate on Afghanistan became a logistics problem, obsessing on numbers of troops, and skirted the conflict's underlying political drivers.

Now, once again, the United States is fixated on logistics: How many soldiers will be removed, how fast, and how to ensure the smoothest possible passage for them and their materiel out of Afghanistan. All other considerations are subordinated to this physics problem. Meanwhile, the civilian dimensions and instruments of U.S. power abroad continue to atrophy, and with them, America's influence.

This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.