General: Corruption poses biggest threat to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan

As the Pentagon makes its way out of Afghanistan, the biggest threat to U.S. forces departing the country won't come from Taliban or al Qaeda, but will come from the Afghan government itself, according to a high-ranking member of the U.S. military.

Maj. Gen. John Toolan, head of the Marine Corps 2nd Division, argued corruption within Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration has now surpassed the insurgency as the main threat to the U.S. mission.

"The threat that's probably most challenging is the corruption and the threat of corruption that can occur in Afghanistan," Toolan told reporters last Monday.

The two-star general led American and NATO operations in the restive Helmand province last March as the commander of Regional Command-Southwest.

Toolan put the rampant corruption he saw during this time into two categories.

One is "parasitic corruption" where Afghan officials associated with the country's thriving narcotics trade leeched authority from the central government to protect their illicit activities.

"It's much like any parasite," Toolan said "It needs a weak host to survive and unless that government of Afghanistan continues to strengthen, these parasites [will] continue to negatively influence its progress."

The second is "predatory corruption" where members of the Afghan security forces use their authority to extort local Afghans in areas outside of Kabul's control. 

However, top lawmakers last week dismissed Toolan's threat assessment, arguing that the Afghan insurgency still posed the greatest risk to American forces in country. 

Admitting that government corruption was an issue that Karzai and the Afghans needed to get under control, the Taliban and affiliated terror groups leading the insurgency remained the top threat in Afghanistan, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) said last Tuesday. 

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out there was no way to weigh the threat posed by Taliban to corruption inside Karzai's regime.

"I can't compare apples to oranges," Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Tuesday. 

That said, Afghan officials argue that Kabul has made significant progress in reining in corrupt elements within the government and the military. 

More than 90 percent of all Afghans believe the Afghan army is ready to take over security operations from U.S. and coalition forces, Afghan defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in an April 12 speech in Washington. 

Afghan security forces are already running detainee and night raid operations in the country, with American support. 

That progress will be key as American and Afghan officials prepare to finalize the details of a post-war security pact at NATO's annual summit in Chicago in May. 

Terms of the deal, which were informally agreed to earlier this month, will give Afghan forces complete control of security operations in the country once U.S. forces leave in 2014. 

A contingent of American special forces will likely remain in country to support Afghan-led missions and to continue counterterrorism operations in the country. 

But if Kabul cannot keep the behavior of its soldiers and government bureaucrats above board by the time coalition forces leave Afghanistan, the United States will “lose everything we’ve gained” over the past decade of war, according to Toolan. 

"As we look towards the future ... [there are] some things we need to be worried about, and corruption stands to the forefront," he said.