KABUL, Afghanistan — On a NATO base in Kabul, a five-member team is rethinking the war in Afghanistan and questioning some of the basic assumptions behind the effort to clean up corruption and gain the upper hand over the Taliban.
Among the ideas this so-called "Red Team" is generating:
— Accept that Afghanistan's entrenched system of graft won't change overnight, so pick your battles.
— Recognize that for Afghans, some corruption is worse than others, so tackle what affects them day-to-day first.
— Study how the Taliban won power by exploiting Afghanistan's system of payoffs and patronage in the 1990s, and borrow those tactics.
The Red Team's studies are part of an evolution of thinking among diplomats, commanders and analysts alike that applying Western standards to combat corruption has not produced results fast enough.
Further, concentrating on what is most important to Americans — such as raiding Afghan government offices over large-scale abuses — has served only to alienate the government of President Hamid Karzai. Such raids have done little to erase the nickel-and-dime bribes Afghans have to pay to drive down a highway, or see a government doctor — the daily shakedowns that drive the people into the arms of the insurgents, who provide similar services without the graft.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have used the Afghan government's behavior, and NATO's paralysis over the issue, to their advantage. The militants are seen as providing "cleaner" government in areas they control. And they pay off or intimidate local leaders and warlords behind the scenes, as they did the last time they took power.
Net result: NATO is losing this fight.
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It's unwelcome news that presents no easy answers for those trying to craft a new strategy to combat corruption. But the Red Team's job is to challenge the status quo, at the direction of the day-to-day commander of operations, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez.
The Red Team itself is a concept that was developed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was used effectively in Iraq.
They call themselves "cognitive insurgents," fighting the established system with brainpower rather than firepower. Team leader Lt. Col. Brian Hammerness says they spend "a lot of time balancing" their analysis so commanders on the receiving end don't shoot the messenger. Hammerness often approaches his bosses saying, "I want to present this information to you, and you might not take this well."
For instance, if a local leader is lining his pockets but also cooperating with the NATO-led force, getting him fired may leave a void for the Taliban to fill, says senior analyst Lt. Col. Michael McGee.
"Sometimes there's a trade-off there," he said. "Initially, you think you are doing the right thing, but it turns out to be much worse than if you'd just left the situation alone."
Some of the Red team's ideas seem to be getting attention. Its report on how the Taliban seized power in the 1990s — by building a network of dependencies with public officials — is required reading for commanders who want to re-evaluate how U.S. troops are prosecuting the war, and how a Western strategy can be tailored to Afghan culture.
The team studied how the Taliban first organized, as a motley crew of locals and returned refugees who had studied at religious schools in Pakistan led by Mullah Omar, the future Taliban leader. Taliban members then worked their way into territory of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, by expanding their influence until they were strong enough to take and hold Kabul by force, in 1996.
The Taliban capitalized on local anger at the violent excesses of feudal warlords, offering similar, often superior government-like services, explained lead report author Capt. Jeffrey Marrs.
"They would co-opt regional power-brokers by ... going to their power-base, which is the people," added team member Lt. Col. Bruce Ferrell. "They would sever the link of patronage."
In short, the Taliban gradually supplanted the local chiefs and became the go-to guys for the public's needs.
And they are doing it again now, according to intelligence reports from territory under Taliban control. Afghans can see a Taliban official within half a day, no bribes paid, to settle something like a land dispute, whereas a visit to an Afghan government office can take up to three days, with multiple bribes dispensed.
Not all warlords or local chiefs take well to being sidelined, so the Taliban uses either violence or payoffs to deal with resisters.
As the payoffs happen out of sight of locals, they are less likely to offend. Afghans are also more likely to look the other way, as long as their day-to-day needs are taken care of, the Red Team found.
So the officers recommend U.S. commanders do the same — monitor the graft and warn the local Afghan officials when their greed is driving the populace to the Taliban.
The NATO equivalent of the bribe comes in the form of U.S. military and development aid.Slideshow: Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads (on this page)
The ultimate goal is to teach the Afghan leaders to co-opt the locals better than the Taliban can.
They have to "develop a method for co-opting ... Afghan communities positively by opening opportunities for the communities to access wealth," such as giving them access to electricity, new schools or clinics, explains Staff Sergeant Steven Dietz, Ph.D., an Army reservist and professor from Texas State University.
Throughout, the U.S. has the power only to encourage, not to coerce, a change in behavior or in Afghan leadership, if a given official simply won't change their ways, the team explains.
And in some cases, the Americans may have to look the other way, as the Afghan people do, the Red Team recommends. Afghans often tolerate local leaders enriching themselves to some extent, as long as they're seen to be sharing that wealth, Dietz explains.
As for long term changes, the Red Team recommends patience. Dietz compares the current Afghan system to the evolving political system of the U.S. in the early 1900s.
"We've talked about can you go from a feudal-like system ... to a participatory democracy, without all of the intervening steps — monarchy, industrialization," says Dietz. "You can't do that overnight. We can't make it happen just because we want it to happen."
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