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How can 40,000 troops fix chronic corruption in Afghanistan?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal reportedly wants 40,000 troops for Afghanistan. But Obama is worried that the government of President Hamid Karzai is too corrupt.

By Staff writer / September 27, 2009

A Special Forces soldier taking cover as two Chinook Ch-47 helicopters come in for a landing with supplies in the village of Nili, the provincial capital of Day Kundi in central Afghanistan, in this Sept. 17 file photo.

Alex Brandon/AP/File

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Comments by President Obama and his advisers this week suggest that the administration is slowly coming to the conclusion that the Afghan government – and not the Taliban – is perhaps the most serious impediment to progress in Afghanistan.

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The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has essentially told Mr. Obama that the US must repeat an Iraq-style surge in Afghanistan – adding 40,000 troops to the 21,000 Obama has already sent – to succeed.

Yet the administration isn’t even debating this request yet. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that he will leave McChystal’s troop request behind when he attends a series of White House meetings beginning this week about the way forward in Afghanistan.

The reason is that the main concern now is not military. It is political.

Is the Afghan government reliable?

After the surge in Iraq, McChrystal, Obama, and the administration can be reasonably confident that the US military has the intelligence and adaptability to fight a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

The concern is that the Afghan government has become so rotted with corruption that it cannot consolidate the gains the US military makes. In other words, the US will never be able to leave Afghanistan unless there's at least a minimally effective government to help in the near term and then take over in the future.

Former President Clinton put it this way on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday: “To succeed, there needs to be a partner.”

Doubt over that point, more than anything else, appears to be driving Obama’s review.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Secretary Gates said Obama always intended to “reassess where were are” after the Afghan presidential election. But allegations of widespread fraud have turned that reassessment into a full-blown crossroads moment.

Election was the last straw

The doubts are well-founded, though they are not new. Analysts have struggled to invent terms to describe the depth of corruption in Afghanistan. One has called it a “narco-kleptocracy,” with government posts on offer to the highest bidder and opium money fueling corruption on a massive scale.