Corruption destroyed Afghanistan, but is not unique to that country

Corruption destroyed Afghanistan, but is not unique to that country
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Each year the State Department issues a series of reports documenting the state of human rights in countries around the world. On the other hand, neither State nor any other agency of the United States government issues a report on the degree of corruption that obtains in those countries. That effort has been left to nongovernmental groups, the most prominent of which is Transparency International, of which the State Department is but one of many governmental, multinational and private donors. It is time Washington approached the question of corruption directly in a far more policy-oriented and systematic manner.

The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightning assault, initially on provincial capitals and then on Kabul, has highlighted the role that corruption has played in the fall of the Afghan government and the collapse of its security forces. That both the government in Kabul and provincial governments were riddled with corruption was no secret to American leaders for more than a decade. The reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted scandal after scandal. Some made headlines, such as the 2010 Kabul Bank scandal. Others were less well-publicized — but not secret, either. For example, it did not require intelligence agencies to track where huge sums of American aid money, or for that matter, illicit drug money, were going. For years it was widely known that Afghan leaders were acquiring estates in Dubai with embezzled funds they had deposited in that city state. 

Indeed, as Sarah Chayes, a seasoned observer of Afghan affairs, has reported, in 2011, shortly after the Kabul Bank’s illicit activities became public knowledge, the Obama administration nevertheless determined that it would not allow corruption to interfere with its twin agenda of defeating the Taliban and continuing America’s nation-building project. In no small part because of that massive misjudgment, corruption continued unabated. Ultimately, without American forces to back them up, and frustrated by their lack of basic essentials that their leaders had denied them in order to fill their own coffers, the majority of Afghan forces simply walked away from the battle. 

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The debate over “who lost Afghanistan” has noted Kabul’s corruption but thus far has offered little in the way of dealing with a more fundamental question: To what extent should U.S. policy track corruption in those states to which it provides economic and/or military assistance, and should it adjust that assistance to minimize its being embezzled by crooked leaders?

This would be no easy task. Many states that benefit from American aid have been riddled with corruption for years, if not decades or even longer. Haiti, currently suffering yet again from nature’s wrath, is a prime example. Haitian corruption is no secret: American aid officials are fully aware of the massive gap between a tiny rich, corrupt elite and the remainder of a nation that is so impoverished that the country ranks among the world’s poorest. Periodic American interventions, not least of which was the Marine Corps’s occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, have done virtually nothing to reduce the massive levels of fraud that have undermined any hope for that country to emerge from its poverty-stricken status.

It is far too much to expect Washington completely to root out corruption that is rampant in many of the countries it supports. Moreover, there can be little doubt some leaders, angered by any American demands to cut back on their corrupt practices, will turn to the likes of China and Russia for assistance. But if these leaders are faced with insurgencies, Chinese and Russian aid may not be enough to save them. After all, Soviet forces were unable to rescue Moscow’s puppet regime in Kabul. And hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American and NATO troops failed after 20 years to prop up a corrupt Afghan government.

The Biden administration, with its high-minded goals, should undertake a serious effort to pressure its supposed friends to target governmental corruption. It could begin by compiling its own official corruption index, akin to that which Transparency International produces. It could then serve notice to corrupt governments that it will provide the predominance of its aid through nongovernmental civil society channels, such as trade unions and farmers cooperatives. It will minimize payments that might be snapped up by greedy officials. No doubt there are other steps the Biden administration might take as well. 

There will be many lessons for Washington to learn from its Afghan debacle. The need to recognize and take seriously the corruption that eats away at societal cohesion should be among the most important that it should act upon, quickly.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.