Petraeus comments on corruption went too far, say Afghans

Gen. David Petraeus infuriated many Afghans after he said corruption has been a part of Afghan culture and history for “however long this country has probably been in existence."

Jim Young/Reuters
General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, arrives to address troops at Bagram Air Base December 3.

Few Afghans would hesitate to admit that corruption is rampant here. When the nation tied for second as the most corrupt country on earth in a recent Transparency International report, few Afghans so much as batted an eye.

But when top commander Gen. David Petraeus said corruption has been a part of Afghan culture and history for “however long this country has probably been in existence,” for many Afghans it was a bridge too far.

While corruption may define much of Afghan daily life right now, Afghans do not want it to define them. Dissatisfaction over Petraeus’s remark underscores the desire many Afghans have to balance the universal values they say their striving for with the harsh realities of a country dealing with three decades of war and a civil service devoted to stealing from citizens.

Then and now

This remark “shows ignorance about Afghan history and culture," says Masood Farivar, the director of Salam Watandar, a local radio network. "The fact is that yes, corruption has existed in Afghan history, but we’ve never seen this level of corruption in Afghan history,” says Mr. Farivar. “It belittles the magnitude of the problems we’re facing today.”

Many Afghan's say corruption was rare 30 years ago.

“General Petraeus should ask for forgiveness from Afghans or at least amend his statement. In the current situation, making these kinds of remarks is just fueling the fire,” says Maulavi Dinkhabar, a religious scholar in Kabul. “As Afghans, we don’t disrespect other cultures and their histories, so others should also try to do the same.”

Hot button topic

Petraeus’s comment came as part of a defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but a number of Afghans focused on the broader implications of the remark. At least two major dailies ran the remarks about corruption as a front-page story on Tuesday and they were a popular topic of conversation on several local radio programs.

“From the first day when the Americans came here they didn’t respect the Afghan culture and customs, the problems got bigger and bigger, and now we see the results,” says Ahmad Shah, a shopkeeper in Kabul. “Corruption has only come in recent decades because of all the fighting.”

As commander of US forces in Iraq and now Afghanistan, Petraeus has developed a reputation among journalists and politicians as a polished speaker who rarely, if ever, makes a public slip of the tongue.

“General Petraeus has always been careful in how he articulates his comments. I think that even in this instance his intent was not to imply that corruption is part of Afghan social fabric. I think his point was that this has been an issue that has existed in the country for some time,” says Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.

Petraeus commented on Afghan corruption during an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that aired Monday.

The general defended Mr. Karzai, saying, “I don't think anyone has charged President Karzai with individual corruption or enriching himself.… There certainly are elements around him that have been alleged to have been engaged in corrupt practices and all the rest. But again, this is Afghanistan. And again, you're not going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less.”

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