Perhaps Gen. McMaster is reluctant to pin too much blame on Mr. Karzai because he thinks the root of Afghanistan’s corruption problem goes deeper, to three decades of “trauma that it’s been through, the legacy of the 1990s civil war . . . [and] the effects of the narcotics trade.” Add to that the unintended consequences of sudden Western attention starting in 2001: “We did exacerbate the problem with lack of transparency and accountability built into the large influx of international assistance that came into a government that lacked mature institutions.”
Yet the Afghan War’s most important factor, in his view, could be the Afghan people’s expectations for the future. “Why did the Taliban collapse so quickly in 2001?” he asks. “The fundamental reason was that every Afghan was convinced of the inevitability of the Taliban’s defeat.”
Today it’s not clear who the strong horse is, so many Afghans are hedging their bets. “What you see in Afghanistan oftentimes,” the general says, “is a short-term-maximization-of-gains mentality—get as much out of the system as you can to build up a power base in advance of a post-[NATO], post-international-community Afghanistan.”
In this respect, the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed last week by President Obama and Mr. Karzai may help, since it pledges some American military and diplomatic commitments through 2024. Gen. McMaster calls it “immensely important.” Still, it doesn’t erase the record of Obama administration rhetoric to the effect that American withdrawal is inevitable even if the enemy’s defeat is not.