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Afghans on troop surge debate: It's the corruption, stupid.

Afghan leaders say any effort that doesn't address election fraud and corrupt officials will fail.

By Staff writer, Julius CavendishContributor / September 23, 2009

Delhi and Kabul, Afghanistan

If an ordinary Afghan could walk into the Washington war rooms where the faltering US war effort is being debated, his message would be: It's the corrupt government, stupid.

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The counterinsurgency strategy outlined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a report leaked Monday aims to win the Afghan population over to the side of their government. But last month's unresolved election, marred by widespread fraud, has left Afghans less optimistic that security and good governance are available from Kabul and its local emissaries.

In the contested province of Kandahar, for instance, tribal elder Haji Padshah says police told voters to reelect President Hamid Karzai in districts like Arghandab, Shorabak, Spin Boldak, and Registan. Such incidents show how corrupt political leaders stand in the way of General McChrystal's vision of training a police force that serves the people, and in doing so, wins undecided Afghans away from support for the Taliban.

"If you have fraud in the elections, you don't have the right person [as leader], and if you don't have the right person, you can't make security better," said Mr. Padshah in a telephone interview.

The McChrystal report appears to agree with Padshah. In it, he argues that NATO forces must "prioritize responsive and accountable governance – that the Afghan people find acceptable – to be on par with, and integral to, delivering security."

But there's serious debate as to whether that can be done in the context of the government that emerges from these elections. Some argue that a focus on improving local government can redeem the Kabul regime; others see that as an impossible mission, given the centralized structure of the government. To the consternation of both sides, Washington appears fixated on the question of more troops, not on reducing corruption and other abuses by Afghan officials.

"Here, the discussion centers around how many more troops should we send, when we should be talking about how to get the Afghan government to clean up its act," says Christine Fair, an Afghanistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "More troops can't fix this. The only reason we are talking about this is that's the one element we can control."