2 years, 12 months ago
For the past few months, possibly the most intriguing poker game in Kabul has been taking place in the sprawling pink sitting room of the man at the center of one of the most public corruption scandals in the world, the near collapse of Kabul Bank.
The players include people tied to President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, many of whom have profited from the crony capitalism that has come to define Afghanistan’s economic order, and nearly brought down Kabul Bank. The game’s stakes “aren’t too big — a few thousand dollars up or down,” one of the participants said.
Betting thousands of dollars a night in a country where most families live off a few hundred dollars a year would seem like a bad play for Sherkhan Farnood, the founder and former chairman of Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest. His assets are supposed to be frozen, and he is still facing the threat of prosecution over a scandal that could end up costing the Afghan government — and, by extension, the Western countries that pay most of its expenses — almost $900 million, a sum that nearly equals the government’s total annual revenues.
But Mr. Farnood, who in 2008 won about $143,000 at a World Series of Poker event in Europe, appears to know a good wager when he sees one. Despite years of urging and oversight by American advisers, Mr. Karzai’s government has yet to prosecute a high-level corruption case. And now many American officials say that they have little expectation that Mr. Farnood’s case will prove to be the exception — or that Washington will try to do much about it, especially after violent anti-American protests in recent weeks have sowed fresh doubts in the Obama administration over the viability of the mission in Afghanistan.
As Americans pull back from Afghanistan, Mr. Farnood’s case exemplifies how the United States is leaving behind a problem it underwrote over the past decade with tens of billions of dollars of aid and logistical support: a narrow business and political elite defined by its corruption, and despised by most Afghans for it.
And thus is Afghanistan perfectly set up for the return of the Taliban when we leave. The Taliban will deal with corruption from the barrel of an AK-47. They will do it quickly, effectively and without mercy.
Our strategy of marginalizing the Taliban, imprisoning their mid-level commanders, and creating a legitimate central government that would take the place of Taliban governance doesn’t seem too smart now, huh? It would have been better to have killed the Taliban all along.
Oh, and all of those mid-level Taliban commanders will soon be released from their prisons only to take charge of their fighters once again as the U.S. leaves and the Karzai government tries (unsuccessfully) to keep from perishing by kowtowing to the demands of the Taliban (thereby hastening the return of the very elements that will end the Karzai government).
You couldn’t have scripted a darker tragedy with pen, paper and any amount of time.