Last night I went to see David Kilcullen, the most quotable Australian since the Brothers Gibb, report on his most recent tour of Afghanistan. This is a great way to begin a speech:
One afternoon about six weeks ago I got ambushed in a valley in Dora Nur, in Nangarhar province...
Kilcullen, who is now a consultant to NATO and the U.S. government spent much of his time explaining how the war effort in Afghanistan is being crippled by the debilitating corruption of the Kabul government. (I'd bet this is similar to the straight talk Secretary Clinton is delivering today on her visit to Afghanistan.) He said a Western diplomat in Kabul told him that the government there reminds him of the Nationalist Chinese government in 1949, with an urban elite trying to scrape together as much wealth as they can before time runs out and they have to scoot.
Kilcullen described a "cycle of corruption" that is destroying Afghanistan:
Rapacious behavior of government officials
Rage and alienation of the people
Operating space for the Taliban
Growing Taliban strength
Taliban encouragement of poppy cultivation
Poppies producing funds that corrupt government officials
And so on
"Poppy is the Taliban CERP," he said, a chilling phrase to anyone who knows the major role that that U.S. military acronym refers to money that American commanders used to win friends and influence people. The farmers who grow the dope only make about $800 million total annually, he said, with the vast majority of revenue, more than $3 billion, being split between drug lords, the Taliban, and government officials.
His bottom line is that there are two real options in Afghanistan: Either tell the Kabul government we are pulling out, or put in enough troops to actually break the cycle of corruption, which he said would be a minimum of about 40,000. "We either put in enough to control, or we get out." The worst thing we could do, he added, is put in enough troops to get more people killed but not enough to do anything to break change the behavior of corrupt officials. Also, he said, it is more about what you do than the actual number of troops -- "If you do it wrong, you could put it a million troops and it wouldn't make any difference."
Without quite saying so, he also indicated that time is a factor right now. "We're seeing a lot of money leaving the country. We're seeing tribes associated with the Northern Alliance re-arming. ... A lot of people are getting nervous." He talked about how attuned local Afghan leaders in remote areas are to American politics, being familiar with the various stances of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Carl Levin. "Right now we're sending kind of a message of indecision."
One surprise to me was that he isn't particularly worried about the possibility of al Qaeda moving back into Afghanistan. "I hope so," he said, explaining that it would be a strategic gain for us to see the terrorist group leave Pakistan and move into parts of Afghanistan that essentially are "the moon with gravity."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.