The Stakes

The mass murder attacks against our own nation on September 11, 2001 and subsequent attacks on other nations including the U.K., Spain, and India, demonstrate clearly the importance of denying transnational terrorist organizations access to the resources, freedom of movement, safe havens, and ideological space they need to plan, organize, and conduct these attacks.  It is for this reason that the stakes in Afghanistan are high as we and our Afghan and international partners fight to deny Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups the ability to re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan.  And it is for this reason that we must continue efforts to convince the Pakistani government and military that it is in their interest to eliminate terrorist and insurgent safe havens in their territory.

Essential Elements of Success

Afghan leaders now have an opportunity to consolidate security gains associated with Coalition reinforcements since 2009 and vast improvements in the size and capability of the Afghan Army and police. To do so, the Afghan government and the international community must cope with a range of criminalized adversaries, all of whom have thrived on the weakness of rule of law and are stakeholders in the weakness of critical state institutions. Ultimately, the Afghan government and security forces must be strong enough to control its territory, and contend with the regenerative capacity of the Taliban, and operate effectively against the nexus of insurgent groups, narcotics-trafficking organizations, and transnational criminal networks. Consolidating gains and strengthening the Afghan state requires a concerted effort by Afghan leaders and their international partners to reduce the threat of corruption and organized crime. Corruption is neither unique nor intrinsic to Afghan society.  The severity of the corruption problem today is the product, in large measure, of the damage that the last three decades of war--especially the conflicts from 1980-2001--inflicted on Afghan society and the country’s institutions.  Inadequate oversight over much of the vast international assistance that entered Afghanistan over the past ten years exacerbated the problem.

Opportunities and Ongoing Efforts

Based on a common assessment of how criminal networks and insurgent groups are subverting critical state institutions and functions, ISAF, the Afghan Government, the U.S. Embassy, and the international community, are undertaking a broad range of actions and initiatives to reduce the threat of corruption and organized crime in Afghanistan. The U.S. military and USAID are working to ensure that development and assistance funds are not diverted by either criminal networks or the insurgency.  Contracts are structured to ensure transparency and accountability.  Vendors are vetted and criminal activity is investigated and sanctioned.  And ISAF and US Department of Justice officials are working with Afghan partners to integrate military, law enforcement, and influence operations against the nexus of the insurgency, the narcotics trade, organized crime, and corruption.  Results include orders-of-magnitude increases in narcotics interdictions, seizures, arrests, and prosecutions.  Special emphasis is on insulating security forces and the judicial sector from the subversion of criminal and insurgent networks.  Moreover, the U.S. and its international partners are pursuing international law enforcement actions and targeted sanctions against transnational organized crime networks that threaten the Afghan state and steal international assistance.

Political Will

Despite these efforts, lack of Afghan political will to confront organized criminal networks remains the principal impediment to consolidating gains and strengthening Afghan institutions.  Criminal patronage networks that operate across Afghanistan’s public and private sectors are driven, in part, by an effort to amass wealth and power as a hedge against the return of large scale communal violence. These networks exploit divisions within Afghan society while generating discord between Afghans and the international community. To generate political will, Afghan leaders and the international community must work together to build confidence in a long term vision for the future in which Afghan communities believe their interests will be advanced and protected.  And the international community must counter the propaganda of insurgent and criminal organizations while convincing key Afghan leaders that it is in their interest to confront the problems of corruption and organized crime. Communications efforts should also discredit insurgent and criminal networks, draw attention to their brutality and venality, trace popular grievances back to them, and isolate them from political protection.


Undertaking necessary reforms will require confidence; despite difficult problems there are reasons for Afghans to be confident in their future.  Afghanistan has made extraordinary progress over the last decade in the areas of security, infrastructure development, individual rights, healthcare, and educational opportunities.  The enemies of the Afghan state are increasingly criminalized and seen as the tools of hostile foreign intelligence organizations. Afghanistan’s enemies are weak politically as they have little to offer beyond hatred and violence.  The approaching Afghan presidential election in 2014 is already generating nascent multi-ethnic movements that call for further governmental reform, reject the political agenda of Taliban, and advocate enduring partnerships with Afghanistan’s true international partners. Afghans and those supporting them in this latest phase in their long struggle for peace and justice might also consider the experiences of other nations, such as Colombia, that, with strong leadership and sustained U.S. support, struggled to rebuild after years contending with the overlapping challenges of corruption, organized crime, the narcotics trade, and illegal armed groups.

H.R. McMaster is a brigadier general in the U.S. Army.  Until recently he served as Commander of Combined Joint Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency) in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The view expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components

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