Obama, left, may have appeared cool and effusive in public, but privately has been firm with Karzai on seriously and aggressively tackling the corruption problem in Afghanistan [EPA]

The unannounced, whirlwind visit of the US president to Afghanistan this past weekend appeared designed to appeal to multiple audiences, and to deliver multiple messages. 

To the American people, Barack Obama wished to show renewed focus and attention to his duties as Commander-in-Chief, in part to counteract the recent impression that his focus on healthcare reform has excluded nearly everything else. 

Similarly, he wished to reassure deployed US troops of his support and his willingness to stay the course, which had come into question after his West Point speech in December 2009 when he distinctly downgraded his previously ambitious goals for Afghanistan and promised the beginning of a draw-down in just 18 months. 

Obama's messages of focus and resolve were no doubt aimed at the leaders of regional powers as well, whose attention to Afghanistan – and the reciprocal attention of the Afghan president – have been much in evidence of late.  
 
The message and the symbolism of Obama's interactions with Hamid Karzai, however, while perhaps more subtle and nuanced, were just as clear.

Avoiding the effusive praise which is customary in such circumstances, Obama struck a cool and correct tone in public, while apparently delivering a firm message on the need for better performance in private – making it clear through spokesmen precisely what he was doing.

At the top of Washington's list of demands: A show of vigour from Karzai on anti-corruption measures. Indeed, Washington's attention to this issue is well-advised. 

Lack of credibility

IN depth

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Endemic official Afghan corruption has done much to delegitimise the Kabul regime in the eyes of many Afghans, and may be the single greatest strategic advantage of a Taliban insurgency which, though unable to deliver much in terms of social or economic advancement, has at least demonstrated relative honesty and a commitment to swift, if brutal, justice.

The US approach toward anti-corruption, however, seems to betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. US officials seem to focus on the need for the Kabul regime to appoint "honest" ministers and governors and to hold them accountable in terms of performance and fiscal probity. 

A focus on the performance of cabinet ministers, and a crackdown on those responsible for egregious money-skimming and blatant favouritism in letting contracts might have at least some salutary demonstration effects, and would pass a politically useful message to the average Afghan.

Such a piecemeal, top-down approach to anti-corruption efforts can only have limited and unsustainable effects, however, and is simply destined to fail, as it does not address the fundamental causes of rampant corruption in Afghan society.

Those advocating such an approach, it seems to me, do not take account of the degree to which the entire Afghan government has fundamentally become a criminal enterprise at all levels.

Concentration of power

The root cause of Afghan corruption, as I see it, is the concentration of power in Kabul. Governors are not elected, either at the provincial or district levels; they are appointed by Kabul, as are ministerial representatives.

They owe their fealty not to those whom they are supposed to serve, but to those who have appointed them; government appointments at all levels are, in effect, licenses to steal. 

Low-level government officials, whether police commanders or customs inspectors, are generally not paid a living wage (though there have been recent efforts to address this, at least for the police), and are expected to support themselves either by abusing their positions for monetary gain, or preying on those whom they are supposed to serve. 

Moreover, they are forced into greater rapacity by the fact that they cannot simply steal for themselves, but must share their ill-gotten gains up the line with those who have appointed them.

This represents a thorough institutionalisation of corruption, which spreads corrosive effects throughout the system and fundamentally undermines popular support for government at all levels. 

Simply replacing a few ministers or strengthening Karzai’s anti-corruption commission cannot, and will not make a fundamental difference. 

Systemic strike

The US believes Karzai, centre, should show vigour when tackling corruption [REUTERS]

It seems to me that the only way to tackle such an entrenched system of corruption is to strike at it systemically. 

Governors, certainly at the district level, and perhaps at the provincial level as well, should be elected, and subject to the oversight of local councils.

Local officials should be subject to the oversight of traditionally representative shuras, so as to maintain a degree of local accountability, as well. 

Similarly, accountability for funding should be concentrated, to the extent possible, at the local level.

There would certainly be difficulties and challenges in a system of governance based on a radical devolution of power. 

For example, provincial leaders, even in a system which incorporates healthy checks and balances on their power, would doubtless want to keep customs revenues in their own domains, rather than passing them to Kabul.

This would unduly advantage those who control the most lucrative trade routes; the imbalance at the national level would need to be addressed in some way. 

Automatic revenue-sharing

At the other end of the federal chain, in Kabul, some form of automatic revenue-sharing at the provincial and perhaps district levels would need to be implemented. None of this would straightforward, and it would necessitate sweeping changes to the Afghanistan constitution.

It seems clear, however, that so long as Kabul holds a relative monopoly on political power, problems of corruption will be insuperable. 

In governance, as in security, the US preoccupation with building up national institutions at the expense of localities is having a deleterious effect, and is hampering prospects for success. 

For in the end, victory over Taliban-inspired extremism in Afghanistan will not be won in Kabul, but village by village, and district by district. 

Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera