Backing the Wrong Afghans

In any imperial foreign policy, it is absolutely essential to secure effective clients. The patron-client relationship may be structurally unequal, but clients usually retain a large degree of latitude. Monitoring the client is likely to prove difficult, especially as the client will almost always have better knowledge of local conditions and stronger relationships with major local social actors. The relationship binds the two actors together and makes the patron vulnerable to decisions made by the client. Sometimes, tails can wag dogs.

America’s perennial problems with its client-states are analysed in Hilton Root’s excellent ‘Alliance Curse’. Unfortunately for the US, the campaign in Afghanistan exhibits many of the familiar problems of the alliance curse – and that’s without even considered the poisonous relationship between the US and Pakistan. Apparently, $900 million of the cash reserves of the Afghan central bank were stolen by a small number of individuals in the ruling elite through use of a ponzi-scheme. The existence of such an enormous ponzi-scheme is a very bad sign, as it signals something massively wrong with the governance of the financial sector and/or a failure of capitalist state-building (as in Russia and some other former Soviet bloc nations in the 1990s). Apparently, many of those involved have got away scot free and remain in Kabul – with the authorities unable to even ask for the money back, let alone prosecute, due to their power and influence. This latest scandal adds to an already long list, perhaps most shockingly the allegations of involvement by President Hamid Karzai’s brother in organised crime and the drug trade.

This sort of extreme corruption and venality is extremely helpful to insurgent groups like the Taliban who, in line with Mao’s strategy of people’s war, often cultivate ascetic and even monkish ethics amongst their cadres in order to win over the populations in which they operate and to draw a contrast between themselves and the venal puppets they oppose. Nepalese Maoists were apparently quite scrupulous about handing out receipts to those they ‘taxed’.

Like it backed the wrong Vietnamese in Vietnam, the US backed the wrong Afghans in Afghanistan. With friends like these…

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Posted on November 30, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. So the question is: did America pick the wrong allies, or did the mere fact of America’s support prefigure the corruption by providing a (probably temporary) advantage? Has there ever been a client that wasn’t corrupt?

  2. Patron-client relations offer a great deal of opportunity for corruption, the problem seems to be intrinsic. It’s the same problem as any hub-and-spoke political system where the central authority appoints a local viceroy. Apparently, there was a saying in China ‘the mountains are high and the emperor is far away’.

    The Karzai regime appear to be particularly poor choices though. I doubt the options for the US were very good. Sometimes there simply aren’t any promising clients. The problem is superpowers haven’t been able to resign themselves to this fact and insist on backing useless clients who just cause them trouble, e.g. USSR with Ethiopia.

  3. “I doubt the options of the US were very good.”

    I think that’s right: the options weren’t very good. Of course, to mention the obvious, the US went into Afghanistan militarily (along w NATO/ISAF) in Oct. ’01 shortly after 9/11. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, presumably the Taliban regime might (though who knows for sure) still be in power in Afghanistan and a lot of Afghans, Pakistanis, Americans, British, Dutch, French, Germans etc who are now dead would still be alive. And the Afghan population wd still be suffering under in some ways — though only some — a worse regime than Karzai. The point being that this particular episode of patron-client relations is not simply a case of the US backing another bad, corrupt regime but is a case where external events forced a choice betw bad options. Of course there’s another possibility: the US could have stayed out of Afghan politics altogether, not overthrown the Taliban, and just focused its efforts on capturing and/or killing Bin Laden. But given the political climate in the US after 9/11 and the Bush admin’s determination to do something visible and forceful, and the fact that the move to overthrow the Taliban had fairly wide bipartisan support in Congress etc, the more limited option was not really politically feasible, I don’t think.

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