April 24, 2012: A major obstacle to improving security in Iraq and Afghanistan was not equipment, training, or leadership but corruption. No matter how well led, trained, and equipped the troops were, if they could be bought they were worse than useless. But the corruption went beyond the troops themselves. Government officials had to be carefully monitored to prevent the money for equipment, training, and pay from being stolen before it got to the troops. More fundamentally, corruption was the reason Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other nations are poor and full of unhappy and often violent people. Corruption is why these places are chaotic and so often in the news. Corruption is the major cause of Islamic terrorism. Corruption does not get the recognition it deserves.
But in Afghanistan corruption has recently risen to new heights: literally. Several recent attacks in Kabul have made use of unfinished high-rise buildings, where terrorists used the height advantage to do more damage. American advisors noted that there were a lot of unfinished tall buildings in Kabul and many had apparently been abandoned. The Americans asked the local government who owned these high-rise structures and was told that the government didn't know. Kabul has undergone a construction boom in the last decade, and many of the builders (or their backers) didn't bother with getting construction permits. If the cops or officials came around asking questions they were offered a bribe, a death threat, or both. Inquisitive journalists were handled the same way.
All this began two decades ago when the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union meant subsidies for the pro-Russian Afghan government were stopped and that government was soon overthrown. The usual ethnic and tribal factions then continued the civil war, mostly over control of Kabul. This city, the traditional capital of Afghanistan, had escaped damage during the 1980s, but when the various warlords sought to seize the city they found that no one was strong enough to hold and take it. But several of the factions were well enough equipped with artillery and rockets to reduce most of the city to rubble. By 1996, the Taliban had control of southern Afghanistan and Kabul but never encouraged rebuilding, so there wasn't much.
By the end of 2001, the Taliban were gone and economic growth returned to Afghanistan and especially Kabul. There was a great rush to rebuild, and the government didn't really try to control it, not when many of the builders had friends with lots of guns and short tempers. Much of the money for construction in Kabul came from corruption, either stealing foreign aid or from other Afghans. This is why many building projects began but were never finished. The usual reason was that the builder ran out of money or was run out of town because of some government or tribal feud. The derelict construction sites were often sold and resold, as new owners found they did not have enough cash to complete the structure. The Kabul government was forced to admit that it didn't know who owned some of these unfinished structures because no one had any incentive to keep records.
But Islamic terrorists saw opportunity where others saw an unfinished building. So now the American advisers are trying to get more security on these unfinished sites or permission to tear down the ones that overlook military bases or government compounds. Kabul officials are reluctant to do that either because if the owner does return he will go looking for compensation from whoever gave the order to destroy his unfinished building.