While Ronald Neumann's father was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in the 1960s, he once asked a provincial governor if stories of the man's alleged corruption were true.
Replied the governor with offended dignity: "I never took more than was expected.''
Corruption is hardly a new problem in Afghanistan, as Ronald Neumann, himself a former ambassador to that country, reminded the audience at a recent University of South Florida symposium on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And no matter how hard the Obama administration leans on President Hamid Karzai to clean up his act, corruption is unlikely to abate until Afghans feel a much greater sense of security than they have during decades of war, chaos and instability.
"Taking what you can to provide for yourself and your family has become normal, even moral if you cannot provide otherwise for your family,'' said Neumann, who served in Kabul from 2005 to 2007. "To understand how corruption has come about is neither to excuse it nor to assume that nothing can be done. But it is necessary to design policies based on Afghan realities and not American outrage.''
Neumann was appointed by President George W. Bush, and I thought he went too light on the Bush administration's own questionable policies on Afghanistan. If it hadn't diverted so many resources to Iraq, we might not still be fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida nearly nine years after the 9/11 attacks.
But given Neumann's many years in Afghanistan, his observations were well worth hearing.
Though Afghanistan could lose foreign support if it continues its corrupt business as usual, Neumann warned that too much change too soon can be dangerous.
When Afghan communists took power in 1979, "their social reforms … alienated Afghans who understood nothing of communist theory,'' he said. "Afghan resistance placed the Afghan communist government in such danger of collapse that it led to the Soviet invasion.''
(And the Soviets, of course, made a humiliating withdrawal a decade later, causing more instability that led to the rise of the brutal Taliban regime.)
Faced with a weak central government, part of U.S. policy has been to encourage local governance. But that, too, has its risks, Neumann noted.
"Decentralization may be necessary, but we need to be very careful that it does not result in strengthening the most corrupt elements in the countryside. We have to make sure that we are not drawn into local conflicts or build local power brokers separate from the Afghan government that will only recreate the disasters (of the past) when we leave.''
One of the most vexing problems for the United States and its allies is how to stop Afghan farmers from growing opium poppies, the basis of the hugely lucrative heroin trade that helps fund the Taliban insurgency. Some farmers who switched to wheat under a British-led program made a decent income last year as wheat prices rose and heroin prices temporarily dropped.
But switching to crops like wheat that require less labor than poppies can cause its own problems.
"There's a large landless population in Afghanistan, and if you only convert to less labor intensive crops you leave a large part of the landless population with no money,'' Neumann said. "The issue is not an alternative crop but rural development writ large.'' Unfortunately, funding for that has been slow to come.
Neumann isn't all bearish on Afghanistan. He thinks there are some good local governors. The key ministries of defense, interior, finance and agriculture are "well led by all accounts,'' he said.
But a challenge will be getting Karzai to crack down on the rampant corruption without criticizing him so much that it looks like the United States wants to get rid of him — a fear of conspiracy-minded Afghans who have seen too many of their governments "manipulated and overthrown by foreigners,'' Neumann said.
Smoothing relations was one reason President Obama flew to Afghanistan last week and met with Karzai. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary while Neumann was ambassador, you work with the Afghan president you have. Not the Afghan president you wish you had.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com