“Haji Mohammad is a very bad man,” intoned the government official, “He is close to al Qaeda. He threatens the people. He is preventing the government from taking control of this area. We will never be secure while he is creating problems.”
The coalition official took notes carefully. The information was very similar to what had been reported by a trusted tribal elder, Haji Omar.
Haji Mohammad was not really an insurgent or a terrorist. He had a feud with Haji Omar about water rights and a piece of arable land that lay between their two properties. These were matters of prosperity — and of life and death.
The two tribes had made an agreement years ago over use of the land and spring. Haji Omar wanted that changed.
The government official paid a large sum of money for his position to a power-broker in the central government. The money secured the “rent” for the next six months. The implicit agreement was that the official could use his position to extract the necessary money to continue paying the power-broker while turning a profit for himself.
The new official was concerned about the future of his country and his family. He wanted to make enough money to establish a sizeable nest-egg in Dubai and send his children to school abroad. Becoming a government official was a good way to get rich quickly while building up foreign contacts.
If the government started collapsing, he could flee the country and live off of his nest-egg. Gaining asylum was easier if he had relationships with Western officials. That meant he had to gain the trust of the coalition force in his area. A letter or certificate from the commander would be extremely helpful.
He did not have enough money to secure the position on his own. He had borrowed a significant amount from others to make up the difference. Haji Omar was one of these supporters.
The official and Haji Omar agreed that securing the disputed land and water rights from Haji Mohammad would repay the debt. That meant Haji Mohammad had to be killed or put into jail. To avoid backlash by Haji Mohammad’s tribe, the two conspired to get the foreigners to do the dirty work. That way, any retaliation would be against the coalition.
He had other schemes, too. He would direct foreign development projects to friends, while securing at least ten percent of the money for himself. He extorted a good portion of customs revenues. He claimed valuable land for the government from those unable to defend it, and then sold it at high prices to wealthy supporters.
He was always careful to be seen with coalition forces, who were eager to empower and legitimize (and defend) him. The people got the message that the heavily-armed foreigners supported the official.
Meanwhile, back at the base, the coalition finalized plans against Haji Mohammad. They now had reports from two credible sources that Haji Mohammad was linked to terrorism and was fomenting instability.
The ensuing operation resulted in the capture of Haji Mohammad and the death of several bodyguards. Two women died in the crossfire. One coalition soldier was killed and two were wounded.
To avoid blame, the government official decried the civilian casualties. Haji Omar seized the disputed land for himself, and convinced the coalition to allow him to form a “tribal police” to help provide security in the area. He now had leverage over his rivals.
Haji Mohammad’s family turned to the insurgency for assistance, protection, and retaliation against the coalition.
Violence in the area increased a few weeks later, as insurgents began planting Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and conducting attacks against the coalition.
Over the next few months, three more coalition soldiers were killed and seven badly wounded. Who was responsible?
This fictionalized story illustrates real-world effects of kleptocracy (see World Bank chart).
It is similar to other stories I use in The Counterinsurgency Challenge to portray how primary focus on military force generally makes security worse and places our people and their mission at greater risk.
Did the government official in this story kill these Soldiers? He did not pull the trigger, but he used the coalition as unwitting pawns to foster his participation in a kleptocracy.
We will never know how many coalition soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere have been killed or wounded due to the malign efforts of corrupt officials and power-brokers.
We will never know to what extent predatory corruption supported to the growth of insurgent and militant and terrorist groups such as the Taliban and ISIL and al Qaeda.
The U.S. government, as it contemplates further engagement in Iraq and Syria and in future efforts elsewhere, has the obligation to our service-members and innocent local civilians to avoid enabling kleptocracy.
The international community also has a responsibility to help governments reform. Assisting President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in dismantling the kleptocracy that has developed in Afghanistan is an important start.
The survival of the Afghan state and U.S. and NATO credibility may depend upon it.
Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC (www.kolendastrategicleadership.com) which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones. A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.