- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 12, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If a front-page news story falls in a Washington forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a front-page noise?

No. But a week later, patient and persevering Washington news consumers may belatedly discover the news they missed - back on Page A25, in The Washington Post’s “Fine Print,” the reporting-based column by veteran Walter Pincus. (The “fine” in the title must be a measure of quality and not type size; Mr. Pincus peruses documents, Izzy Stone-style, while other journalists are off blogging, and finds what others missed.)

So, on Tuesday, Mr. Pincus was able to report the news of Dec. 2 - what has really gone so wrong in Afghanistan that perhaps no troop surge can be big enough to fix it.

On Dec. 2, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, testified at a morning Senate hearing and an afternoon House hearing on President Obama’s new Afghanistan war policy. Reporters filled the morning Senate Armed Services hearing, but the afternoon House Foreign Affairs hearing was not as hot a ticket. Many reporters (and apparently their inexperienced editors) apparently expected a mere teatime rerun.

But that’s not how things really happen in Washington. Often, when officials have same-day hearings, they stick to the official line in the mornings. But in the afternoons, more relaxed and maybe bored, they often say what they really think.

Alas, many celebrated reporters ducked the afternoon hearing. Indeed, The Washington Post’s lead story the next day misidentified the House committee. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, opened the hearing by observing that under Mr. Obama’s new strategy, “success will hinge on a substantial deployment of civilian resources.” Mrs. Clinton clearly agreed and went on to observe a few things we once called front-page news - that our tax money, being pumped through the hands of contactors because the United States doesn’t have sufficient Agency for International Development staff in the country - often winds up in Taliban pockets.

In the morning, Mrs. Clinton had merely testified nebulously that “most of our civilian aid going into Afghanistan had been contracted out without adequate oversight or accountability.” In the afternoon she detailed the chain of corruption and America’s misbegotten role in it.

“Much of the corruption [in Afghanistan] is fueled by the money that has poured into that country over the last eight years,” said Mrs. Clinton. “And it is corruption at every step along the way, not just in the palace in Kabul.”

In the most candid public comments by an official, she explained how corruption happens along the lengthy truck routes. “You offload a ship in Karachi. And by the time whatever it is gets to where we’re headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money. That has nothing to do with President Karzai. … We have to do a better job, on the international side, to coordinate our aid, to get more accountability for what we spend in Afghanistan.” Mr. Pincus noted that AID had just advertised an urgent need for private contractors to fill most jobs in AID’s Kabul office. That’s inviting more trouble.

Mrs. Clinton also spoke with uncommon public candor about the usually covert payments to many now siding with the Taliban as a matter of practicality, not philosophy. “We understand that some of those who fight with the insurgency do not do so out of ideology, theology or conviction, but frankly due to coercion and money,” she said. “The average Taliban fighter, it is our information, receives two to three times the monthly salary than the average Afghan soldier or police officer.”

So that’s what they see in the Taliban. No troop surge can succeed without a U.S. AID staff surge. And especially a U.S. payola surge to lubricate the repatriation of those Afghans who look at a Taliban and see not an Islamist hero - but merely a cash cow.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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