American Policy's Corruption Game
The Ben Alis of Central Asia
Nor is the problem confined to North Africa or even anxious US-backed autocrats in the Arab world. Take the natural gas– and gold-rich Central Asian country of Uzbekistan with a population of about 27 million, whose corruption the US embassy was cabling about as early as 2006. The dictatorial but determinedly secular regime of President Islam Karimov was an early Bush administration ally in its "Global War on Terror," quite happy to provide Washington with torture-inspired confessions from “Al Qaeda operatives,” most of whom, according to former British ambassador Craig Murray, were simply ordinary Uzbek dissidents. (Although Uzbeks have a Muslim cultural heritage, decades of Soviet rule left most of the population highly secularized, and except in the Farghana Valley, the Muslim fundamentalist movement is tiny.) Severe human rights abuses finally caused even the Bush administration to criticize Karimov, leading Tashkent to withdraw basing rights in that country from the US military.
In recent years, however, a rapprochement has occurred, as Washington’s regional security obsessions once again came to the fore and the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt ramped up. The Obama administration is now convinced that it needs Uzbekistan for the transit of supplies to Afghanistan and that evidently trumps all other policy considerations. As a result, Washington is now providing Uzbekistan with hundreds of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts, a recipe for further corruption.
Last spring, one Central Asian government—Kyrgyzstan’s—fell, thanks to popular discontent, which should have been a warning to Washington, and yet US officials already appear to have forgotten what lessons those events held for its policies in the region. As long as ruler Kurmanbek Bakiev allowed the United States to use Manas Air Base for the transit and supply of American troops in Afghanistan, Washington overlooked his corruption and his authoritarian ways. Then it turned out that his regime was not as stable as had been assumed.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb in such situations: bad policy creates even worse policy. The Obama administration’s mistake in ramping up its Afghan War left it needing ever more supplies, worrying about perilous supply lines through Pakistan, and so vulnerable to transit blackmail by the ruling kleptocracies of Central Asia. When their populations, too, explode into anger, the likely damage to US interests could be severe.
And keep in mind that, as the State Department again knows all too well, Afghanistan itself is increasingly just a huge, particularly decrepit version of Ben Ali’s Tunisia. US diplomats were at least somewhat wary of Ben Ali. In contrast, American officials wax fulsome in their public praise of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (even if privately they are all too aware of the weakness and corruption of “the mayor of Kabul”). They continue to insist that the success of his government is central to the security of the North American continent, and for that reason, Washington is spending billions of dollars propping him up.
Corruption Triumphant in the Name of Counterterrorism
Sometimes it seems that all corrupt regimes backed by the United States are corrupt in the same repetitive way. For instance, one form of corruption US embassy cables particularly highlighted when it came to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans in Tunisia was the way they offered “loans” to their political supporters and family members via banks they controlled or over which they had influence.
Since these recipients understood that they did not actually have to repay the loans, the banks were weakened and other businesses then found it difficult to get credit, undermining the economy and employment. Thanks to the Jasmine Revolution, the problem finally is beginning to be addressed. After the flight of Ben Ali, the Central Bank director was forced to resign, and the new government seized the assets of the Zitoune Bank, which belonged to one of his son-in-laws.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, Da Kabul Bank, founded by Karzai ally Sherkan Farnood, was used as a piggy bank for Karzai’s presidential campaign and for loans to members of his family as well as the families of the warlords in his circle. Recipients included Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and Haseen Fahim, the son of his vice president and former Northern Alliance warlord Marshal Mohammad Fahim. Some of the money was used to buy real estate in Dubai. When a real estate bust occurred in that country, the value of those properties as collateral plummeted.
With recipients unable to service or repay their debts, the bank teetered on the edge of insolvency, with potentially dire consequences for the entire Afghan financial system, as desperate crowds gathered to withdraw their deposits. In the end, the bank was taken over by an impoverished Afghan government, which undoubtedly means that the American taxpayer will end up paying for the mismanagement and corruption.
Just as the Ben Ali clique outdid itself in corruption, so, too, Karzai’s circle is full of crooks. American diplomats (among others) have, for instance, accused his brother Wali Ahmed of deep involvement in the heroin trade. With dark humor, the American embassy in Kabul reported last January that Hamid Karzai had nominated, and parliament had accepted, for the counter-narcotics post in the cabinet one Zarar Ahmad Moqbel. He had earlier been deputy interior minister, but was removed for corruption. Another former deputy interior minister evidently even informed embassy officials that “Moqbel was supported by the drug mafia, to include Karzai’s younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and Arif Khan Noorzai.” This is being alleged of Afghanistan's current counter-narcotics czar!
Or take the example of Juma Khan Hamdard, whom Karzai appointed governor of Paktya Province in the Pashtun-dominated eastern part of Afghanistan. A little over a year ago, the embassy accused him of being the leader of “a province-wide corruption scheme.” He is said to have been “the central point of a vast corruption network involving the provincial chief of police and several Afghan ministry line directors.”
According to that WikiLeaks-released cable, Hamdard’s network had set up a sophisticated money-skimming operation aimed at milking US funds going into reconstruction projects. They gamed the bids on the contracts to do the work and then took cuts at every stage from groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting.
In addition, Governor Hamdard was reported to have longstanding ties to the Hizb-i Islami militia/party movement of Gulbaddin Hikmatyar, one of the Pashtun guerrilla leaders trying to expel the United States and NATO from the country, who, US officials claim, is in turn in a vague alliance with the Taliban. Hamdard allegedly also has a business in Dubai in which Hikmatyar’s son is a partner, and is accused in the cable of funneling jewels and drug money to Hikmatyar loyalists. As with Tunisia, the public rhetoric of counterterrorism belies a corrupt and duplicitous ruling elite that may, by its actions, foster rather than forestall radicalism.
For a superpower obsessed with conspiracy theories and invested in the status quo, knowing everything, it turns out, means knowing nothing at all. WikiLeaks has done us the favor, however, of releasing a harsh set of truths. Hard-line policies such as those of the Algerian generals or of Uzbekistan’s Karimov often radicalize economically desperate and oppressed populations. As a result, US backing has a significant probability of boomeranging sooner or later. Elites, confident that they will retain such backing as long as there is an Al Qaeda cell anywhere on the planet, tend to overreach, plunging into cultures of corruption and self-enrichment so vast that they undermine economies, while producing poverty, unemployment, despair and ultimately widespread public anger.
It is not that the United States should be, in John Quincy Adams’s phrase, going out into the world to find dragons to slay. Washington is no longer all-powerful, if it ever was, and President Obama’s more realistic foreign policy is a welcome change from George W. Bush’s frenetic interventionism.
Nonetheless, Obama has left in place, or in some cases strengthened, one of the worst aspects of Bush-era policy: a knee-jerk support for self-advertised pro-Western secularists who promise to block Muslim fundamentalist parties (or, in the end, anyone else) from coming to power. There should be a diplomatic middle path between overthrowing governments on the one hand, and backing odious dictatorships to the hilt on the other.
It’s time for Washington to signal a new commitment to actual democracy and genuine human rights by simply cutting off military and counterterrorism aid to authoritarian and corrupt regimes that are, in any case, digging their own graves.