I missed Dexter Filkins’ latest piece):

It’s not as if the Americans and their NATO partners don’t know who the corrupt Afghans are. American officers and anti-corruption teams have drawn up intricate charts outlining the criminal syndicates that entwine the Afghan business and political elites. They’ve even given the charts a name: “Malign Actor Networks.” A k a MAN.

Looking at some of these charts—with their crisscrossed lines connecting politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents — it’s easy to conclude that this country is ruled neither by the government, nor NATO, nor the Taliban, but by the MAN.

It turns out, of course, that some of the same “malign actors” the diplomats and officers are railing against are on the payroll of the C.I.A. At least until recently, American officials say, one of them was Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother. Mr. Karzai has long been suspected of facilitating the country’s booming drug trade.

I like this passage because it shows how Arquilla is both right and wrong: networks are the predominant actors in world politics and can undermine states, but they might also constitute states as well. Thus, by applying Arquilla’s logic to state building, networks can be affected to help produce states – relationships between state and non-state actors (religious, economic, social) and create political conditions conducive to rule by corporate bureaucratic organization. If true, two important questions follow: what are the characteristics of networks that span the boundaries of state authority? How do those relationships affect the internal components of the state, and how might change in those relationships change also change its internal composition?

To answer, we must first understand the relationships between inside and outside of the Afghan state that constitute it, and the roles of bureaucratic agents of the state. If roles are socially learned, those actors’ previous interactions provide experiences that guide future action and impact the possibility of system-wide change. Change is constrained by the previous choices of actors to make or break relationships that establish expectations -this is how some choices greatly affect the incentive structure in future choices and also the meaning we attribute to specific action that legitimates or delegitimates certain choices.

Thus, the weakness of the Afghan state (its security and collapsing financial institutions, its inability to claim soveriegnty by reducing violence against its citizens) is somewhat influenced by our relationship with it. While some components of the international community are actively striving to improve governance and build empowering relationships with local institutional partners, others form relationships with both state and non-state actors for ‘efficiency’ that solve problems in the short-term but create long-term contradictions. This is the ultimate effect of agencies like the CIA empowering Afghan warlords and power brokers for the first years of the war.

As the war would down, th Bush administration was faced with two policy choices. IT was clear by the summer of 2002 that the warlords were becoming stronger while the Karzai regime lacked the resources to complete. The unstated U.S. strategy was the leave Karzai ineffectual in the capital, protected by foreign forces, while relying on the warlords to keep Pax Americana in the countryside and the U.S. SOF forces to hunt down al Qaeda. It was a minimialist, military intelligence – driven strategy that ignored nation building, creating state institutions, or rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure. By following such a strategy, the United States left everything in place from the Taliban era except for the fact of regime change. (Rashid, p. 133)

What remained were petty warlords whose approach to power was formed during the Soviet invasion, whose strategy for power involved attracting wealthy patrons (the Soviets, Pakistan, America, Iran) and plundering enemies. The U.S. empowered the actors that created popular grievances amongst the people once addressed only by the Taliban. Absent any support to deepen the Afghan government’s capacity, Karzai no choice but to appease and accomodate former warlords by including them in the state.

These exchange relationships and the normative beliefs that legitimate them (essentially patronage) are still in place and create incentive structures that do not fulfill our original goal – creating the conditions for the emergence of a legitimate bureaucratic and corporate institution that supports socioeconomic stability. Given Karzai’s lack of state capacity, he could not challenge the warlords and had to co-opt them, bring them into the ‘patronage’ of state institutions and tolerate their own enrichment and clientelism. The idea that the U.S. and NATO would assist the Afghanis in ‘building’ a legitimate Afghan state (and establishing social relationships and institutions that undermined warlords and promoted traditional and modern forms of civil society) wasn’t ever thoroughly operationalized until 2009 (for example: Seth Jones reports both Western governments and contractors launched multiple failed attempts to strengthen the Interior Ministry, pp.164-176). Despite all the the work of Petraeus, patronage relationships continue that exist that still undermine his counterinsurgency and state-building strategy.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Malign Actor Network underneath the Afghan government doesn’t understand what we want from it (in terms of good governance and anti-corruption) when we engage in patronage at the same time. Even if the CIA gets great information from Afghan gov’t officials, pursuing that short-term goal reinforces relationships that compromise our long-term strategic goal. This produces a policy failure, and it results from multiple agencies operating under alternative strategic agendas. Regarding Karzai’s tolerance of corruption, we have gone from confrontation to accommodation to confrontation and back to accomodation because we still haven’t addressed our own implicit support of it. And we have yet to support Afghan state building because we have never organized all our agencies around a common state building policy. Lacking such strategic clarity, the initial strategy and operationalization of the war – buying influence and empowering local warlords and power brokers – still continues today and reinforces the expectations and incentive structures that allow corruption and patronage to persistently undermine the Afghan state.

Update: more evidence of no ability to translate strategic intention into new modes of interaction.

The issue, the senior official said, is determining “what amount and what type of corruption feeds the Taliban and undercuts our capacity and any Afghan government’s capacity to govern” versus what is culturally “endemic” in Afghan society. Senior officials, including Obama, have publicly insisted the United States is not trying to create “Shangri-la” or “Switzerland” in Afghanistan. The goal, they say, is a stable society that will not permit al-Qaeda to reestablish its presence there.

But military commanders have expressed confusion in recent interviews about what that means on the ground, particularly in terms of where to draw the line in their relationships with Afghan power brokers at all levels.