Rotten to the Core

Why does the West, after nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, still have no viable strategy for fighting corruption?

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Sitting in an Mi-8 helicopter, heading back to Kabul with American poppy-eradication advisors, I recognized that I had just had my first encounter with corruption in Afghanistan — and the United States’ dismal efforts to address it. It was early 2005, just before the spring opium poppy harvest, and I had been liaising with eradication advisors sent to villages in eastern Nangarhar province, formerly a prolific poppy cultivator. A well-implemented cultivation ban by the then governor, Haji Din Mohammad, forced over a 90 percent reduction in planting. The few poppy fields I saw were limited to remote areas and were still several weeks away from blooming into fields of brilliant red and pink with white trim. Despite a transfer of authority in the province, the outgoing governor and the incoming governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, had orchestrated the most successful poppy ban and eradication campaign in the country. In 2005, Nangarhar was a poster child of the Afghan war on drugs.

Unfortunately, both Din Mohammad’s and Sherzai’s enthusiasm for the anti-narcotics campaign was a function of the huge profit opportunity it represented. Opium prices in the country surged, making both governors’ reportedly considerable opium interests more profitable for their proxies and supporters. But price control was not the only intent. Eradication itself was a corrupt venture: Governors who were good performers attracted more Western aid, which was all too easily siphoned off. The other half of the game was soliciting bribes and protection payments from poppy farmers, while only eradicating the crops of those who couldn’t afford to pay. The advisors I was with knew all this, but their interests rested with eradication and cultivation targets, not with the perverse system of power and profit their targets created.

And so, even as the insurgency gained strength in southern Afghanistan, thousands of similar scams spread through Afghan officialdom. Political expediency, state weakness, opportunity, and an environment of uncertainty have promoted a race to the bottom in Afghan accountability. Money has become the Kabul government’s raison d’être, with appointed positions like provincial governor being bought and sold like shares in a company.

The revelation that Osama bin Laden was residing in a Pakistani garrison town has placed the issue of double-dealing by Pakistan’s intelligence services at the forefront of the U.S. public debate. But corruption by Afghan officials also continues to undermine public trust in the government, and the United States’ aims in the region.

"We are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less," Gen. David Petraeus, head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in March, managing the expectations of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. "There is a very realistic understanding of the conditions in tribal societies."

But it is precisely the absence of a realistic understanding of how corruption works in Afghanistan that has prevented the United States from devising an effective anti-corruption strategy. Nearly a decade into an increasingly unpopular war, international forces have yet to develop and implement a strategy that distinguishes relatively harmless petty corruption from efforts to subvert the state for personal gain — the latter being the stuff truly damaging to Afghanistan’s social fabric and long-term viability.

The United States has doled out well over $50 billion in government assistance to Afghanistan since 2001, but its efforts to rebuild the country increasingly resemble a shell game from which only Afghan warlords profit. Western support itself is part of the problem. In the absence of sound policy, the international community has simply thrown money at the country, undermining the very regime it has been attempting to build.

The responsibility for this failure rests largely with the nature of the counterinsurgency effort. Corruption has only recently become a priority on Petraeus’s laundry list of Afghan challenges — despite the fact that governance has technically always been part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) remit. However, the international focus on countering the Taliban insurgency and the imperative of training Afghan security forces have left the intimately related issue of corruption to fester at the bottom of the agenda.

U.S. and NATO forces have long believed that anti-corruption campaigns were someone else’s problem. In the decade after the Taliban’s fall, nascent Afghan institutions and international agencies established a byzantine network of anti-corruption efforts that suffered from overlapping and conflicting mandates and gave the campaign a sense of incoherence and confusion. Any Western diplomat, aid worker, soldier, or observer of Afghanistan invariably has a story about banging his or her head against bureaucratic walls when trying to call anything other than superficial attention to the corruption he or she encountered.

Under Petraeus, the military coalition has explicitly recognized that endemic corruption is a driver of the popular dissatisfaction that the Taliban feeds on for support and is a direct threat to the ISAF mission, thereby establishing an anti-corruption shop under the ISAF commander last fall. This means that international military forces are no longer ignoring the corruption issue and, at least on paper, are making it a strategic priority. Much of this work has required a hard look at the international coalition’s own role in engendering the corruption it hopes to fight, trying to straighten out its messy contract-awarding process.

As with all issues, there’s a learning curve, but as much as any effort in Afghanistan requires ISAF’s proactive buy-in, the coalition still lacks the critical tools and issue understanding to be effective in fighting corruption, potentially making the results of an ISAF-led anti-corruption campaign predictably disappointing. ISAF is just now developing an anti-corruption strategy, and its shop is small, lacking the personnel, internal support, analytical credibility, and mandate to effectively corral all of ISAF and outside stakeholders onto the same page.

But solving the problem of corruption in Afghanistan isn’t just a matter of institutional introspection, resolving the bureaucratic tangle, or reining in reckless spending. It also requires the international community to recognize and fix its failure to understand and define the nature of Afghan officials’ many corrupt activities.

Definitions matter. Along with troops and money, the West has brought certain prejudices and assumptions to Afghanistan. These ebb and flow like catchy refrains among the in-country observers and are often mistaken as meaningful insights. On my most recent trip in February, for example, the oft-repeated leitmotif was: "The Afghan people are not inherently corrupt."

This is entirely true — no people are inherently corrupt — but it misses and dismisses the role of Afghanistan’s history and society in giving rise to the current manifestations of corruption. It also undermines realistic estimates of what a successful anti-corruption campaign looks like. The forms and function of corruption we see in Afghanistan are as much a reflection of "Afghan society and history" as they are a perversion of it. Just as international forces cannot expect to transform Afghanistan into a modern Western democracy, they cannot hope to implement U.S. or European corruption standards in the country.

ISAF officially defines corruption as an "abuse of public authority for private gain." But this definition essentially dismisses all Afghan politics as corrupt. It isn’t. Corrupt practices often serve a function beyond just making corrupt actors rich — they can also be an important means for people to secure political and economic goods in the absence of a functioning state. Given Afghanistan’s 30-odd years of war, Afghans have become incredibly savvy and pragmatic about meeting their needs in an environment of tremendous uncertainty.

Many supposedly "corrupt" activities address the development and stability needs of both individuals and society. For example, whatever progress has been made in knitting together a nation since 2001, Afghanistan remains socially fragmented, and different parts of the country rely on strongmen to raise and invest the capital for schools, roads, telecommunications, and hospitals that no one else is building. They often do so in unsavory ways. But it remains that all corruption, therefore, is not equally evil. Ismail Khan, a former warlord and the current water and energy minister, is no paragon of good governance; however, Khan has consistently ensured reinvestment of licit and illicit activities into his home economy, promoting economic growth and livelihood for many in Herat province.

The international community oversimplifies the problem by failing to distinguish between these different motivations behind corruption. Incoherence in defining the problem has helped pave the way for most Afghan-led anti-corruption drives to be nothing more than corrupt enterprises themselves. In contrast with Khan, Gen. Daoud Daoud, former deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and the current Interior Ministry commander in the north, has used his position to strengthen the web of the criminal protection enterprise, enshrining safe passage for many Afghan officials’ drug trafficking, if not into law, then certainly in regulatory practice. On whether Daoud has taken his penchant for illicit profit to his current position in the north fighting the Taliban, one U.S. official with whom I spoke noted, "new suit, same dude." Daoud, like Din Mohammad, Sherzai, and countless others before him, have just been rotated into new jobs due to international pressure, in many cases serving to expand their repertoire of corrupt activities. ISAF’s superficial support of and belief in the efficacy of such rotations reflects its general failure to define and understand the problem.

And so it remains that Western norms continue to implicitly color how the international community deals with corruption in Afghanistan. No country’s corruption battle has been fought and won by outsiders, and this record is unlikely to change in Afghanistan. But to even begin to create the space for the Afghan government to combat corruption on its own, the West must be willing to see the problem through Afghan eyes.

There’s increasing awareness of this in policy circles, as evidenced by comments made by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to the House Armed Services Committee in mid-March. Citing legal anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, Thornberry said, "The idea of corruption in a tribal society is fundamentally different from the way we view corruption." This is progress, but because of the difficulty of dropping Western biases, the effort to understand Afghan corruption has prompted a near pathological obsession with describing corruption’s Afghan manifestations, rather than its context and motivation. As a result, proposed policy responses vacillate between the extremely specific and the ludicrously general, leaving little conceptual space for a happy medium that could result in a sound anti-corruption strategy.

Focusing on corruption’s intent rather than obsessing about its forms can help distinguish the bad from the less bad and help identify effective methods for international forces to intervene. When corruption is about capturing parts of the state, like when Kabul’s elites turned Kabul Bank into nothing more than a slush fund for buying votes and Dubai mansions, international action, not just local pressure, is needed. Other corruption is simply about a need to cope with degraded institutions and the deprivations of the status quo. A U.N. report last year failed to make this important distinction. In taking a crucial bottom-up approach to assessing corruption, the report implicitly painted the pervasiveness of low-level bribery as representative of the Afghan corruption issue. And because bribery is what most Afghans experience on a daily basis and prompts much of the popular outrage against the government, the report drew significant attention. But the local Afghan National Police official who demands more in bribes because his paycheck is late due to a Kabul Bank collapse is driven less by greed than by coping. Such bribery isn’t representative of the most threatening form of corruption — it’s really a symptom of corruption fomented elsewhere.

Given a more nuanced picture of Afghan corruption, what should ISAF target first, and how should it do so? The above suggests that coalition forces should devote their efforts not necessarily to the acts that prompt the most popular outrage, but those that represent the greatest threat to the long-term viability of the Afghan state. Today, this threat comes from power brokers who seek to institutionalize behavior that damages development, such as that by ministers and officials associated with the Kabul Bank crisis, an event that likely represents the tip of the iceberg.

The West must also adjust its expectations about what a successful anti-corruption effort in Afghanistan looks like. For the foreseeable future, it isn’t going to be about Afghan institutions building prosecutable, evidence-based cases, nor about naming and shaming Afghan officials. Instead, a meaningful anti-corruption drive must be led by the international community.

Western authorities should not be afraid to use a heavy hand. The only groups capable of challenging the monopoly of power enjoyed by state-capturing officials are the international coalition’s intelligence, law enforcement, and military entities. The incentives for an Afghan prosecutor to look the other way are too significant to overcome in the short term — at the end of each day, he travels home alone. But the means for the international coalition to influence corrupt officials are myriad, and if ISAF gets its bearings, it can target such officials where it will hurt, forcing them to winnow down their corrupt activities. As things stand, the lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s cash-based economy flushes some $75 million to $100 million, by some estimates, out of Kabul International Airport daily. The money leaves in hawaladar (moneylender) suitcases and until recently, would board a flight offered by Pamir Airways, an airline conveniently owned by officials at Kabul Bank (the airline’s flights were recently suspended due to safety concerns). This money goes to Dubai, where it can also be targeted.

Such targeting, if properly coordinated, would not only inject risk into an Afghan official’s corrupt activities, but also provide the strategic leverage and credibility for the inevitable sit-down between a Western representative and the corrupt official. In most cases, officials wouldn’t go to prison, nor would they be removed or rotated from office. But the scope and range of their corrupt activities could be narrowed, perhaps giving Afghans the confidence and tools to hold their officials accountable on their own.

This kind of heavy outside involvement has significant implications for Afghanistan’s national sovereignty, and many in the international community will find such a strategy unpalatable. But given Afghanistan’s evident inability to deal with the problem, there is little choice. The connection between corruption and the insurgency is undeniable, and the high cost of the Afghan war means that ISAF must lead the fight in the near term. Petraeus should give his little anti-corruption shop more power and resources to do so effectively — it is the only means to inject risk into a riskless system.

Under Petraeus’s leadership, Western forces have finally recognized that corruption relates directly to insecurity. It’s time to act accordingly.

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