Best Defense

11 proposed steps for ISAF to help respond to corruption in Afghanistan

By Jaron S. Wharton Best Defense guest columnist Corruption[i] has a deleterious effect on International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts and may be the greatest impediment to accomplish its mission along with the greatest obstacle to the Afghan government’s ability to establish enduring security and stability.[ii] A counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign is ultimately a competition for ...

Doctor Yuri/Flickr
Doctor Yuri/Flickr

By Jaron S. Wharton
Best Defense guest columnist

Corruption[i] has a deleterious effect on International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts and may be the greatest impediment to accomplish its mission along with the greatest obstacle to the Afghan government’s ability to establish enduring security and stability.[ii] A counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign is ultimately a competition for good governance and "when corrupt officials slowly drain the resources of a country, its potential to develop socially and to attract foreign investment is diminished, making it incapable of providing basic services to or enforcing the rights of its citizens."[iii] If a COIN force cannot offer a credible alternative in the form of support for a relatively clean local government it will fail grossly. When done properly, these campaigns last roughly a decade. When done improperly, failure takes much less time.[iv]

Indeed, well-grounded perceptions of injustice and the abuse of power have directly fueled the insurgency in Afghanistan, making ISAF appear complicit in a range of activities from the empowerment of national security forces to contracting practices. According to a 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey, "Poverty and violence are usually portrayed as the biggest challenges confronting Afghanistan. But ask the Afghans themselves, and you get a different answer: corruption is their biggest worry."[v] Afghanistan was ranked 176 out of 178 nations in the 2010 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.[vi] Yet despite frequent public statements made by President Karzai, there has been an overall lack of political will to address the corruption problem.[vii] As Sarah Chayes, former NPR reporter and author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, writes, anti-corruption "is the issue that will win the war."[viii]

Part of securing and serving the people of Afghanistan means protecting them from the abuse of power as corruption is not a victimless crime. Moving forward, ISAF must focus on reducing the corruption that impedes the success of the mission and the viability of the Afghan state. Countering corrupt activity requires an international effort far beyond just ISAF. While this is a delicate task, I believe ISAF should consider re-issuing "anti-corruption guidance." General McChrystal published initial guidance in February 2010, but it is prudent to offer an update — especially against the backdrop of distressed autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. The following eleven tenets should inform any new ISAF anti-corruption guidance to troops.

1. First, do no harm. In many ways, we have contributed to the corruption problem through insufficient oversight of international contracting and development efforts (ref: June 8 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report titled "Evaluating US Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan"). Some think that corruption is endemic to Afghan society and assert that Afghans view today’s abusive practices as normal. They are wrong — the current scale of corruption deviates from traditional norms and cultural practices. Since 2002, Afghanistan experienced unprecedented growth in illicit economic activity that continues to prevent growth of the licit economy and foster kleptocratic behavior. For us to reduce the space where corruption can occur, "we all must sweep in front of our own house."[ix]

2. Support Afghan leadership — but do not do so blindly. No historical precedent exists for outsiders solving the corruption problems of a sovereign nation.[x] Cooperation and coordination with Afghans in anti-corruption efforts are essential to success. President Karzai’s statements give us a strong basis for working together, developing a common understanding of the problem and identifying concrete steps to reduce the level of corruption that threatens to fatally undermine the Afghan state. Together, we must work to reduce the corruption that denies the Afghan people the security and prosperity they deserve. In doing so, we must never forget to be good guests. At the same time we must understand that some officials seek to increase their personal wealth and power base at the expense of the Afghan people.  

3. Confront impunity. Corruption is as much an enemy as the insurgents. Corruption appears in many forms spanning licit and illicit activities and involves government officials, contractors and commercial entities. The abuse of these positions for personal gain undermines government legitimacy. We must recognize it, understand it, and act. We cannot afford to remain neutral or indifferent to corruption and the abuse of power. The lack of transparent, accountable Afghan government increases the insurgents’ resiliency and makes it difficult for Allied and Afghan forces to consolidate political gains in the wake of improved security.

4. Make development and assistance contingent on transparency and accountability. The ability to improve the lives of the Afghan people is our comparative advantage over the insurgents — make sure the people we work with work for the people. We must not blindly support those who prey upon and take advantage of the Afghan people. To do so, we must isolate extractive and exclusionary actors from their sources of strength and support — ensuring they do not benefit from our financial assistance or the prestige that comes from it. While we improve the way we expend resources, we must also support those Afghans who will apply pressure against those who prioritize their own self interest over that of the state and their fellow countrymen. We must be careful whom we empower with our money. Progress of projects is measured in contributions to Afghan/ISAF objectives, not by the amount spent or the number completed.

5. Apply the 2010 Counterinsurgency (COIN) Contracting Guidance. Poor contracting has often enriched international companies, extractive powerbrokers, and insurgents at the expense of the Afghan people. When criminals and insurgents steal money from international contracts, they deprive the Afghan people of aid intended to improve their lives. These networks also divert resources and revenues needed to sustain state institutions and degrade their capacity and effectiveness. Money is a powerful non-kinetic weapon — how much we spend is much less important than how we spend. Contracting is not the root cause of corruption, but corruption feeds off contracting conducted hastily and with insufficient oversight.[xi]

6. Strengthen Afghan and ISAF anti-corruption capabilities. We must build venues to work together with Afghans to ensure that all anti-corruption efforts are grounded in local political and social dynamics. Harness the population’s ability to identify and counter corruption as they will know more than we will ever know — they have the home field advantage.

7. Map Criminal Patronage Networks (CPNs). While some corruption is petty and lacks strict organization, the most serious forms of corruption are perpetuated by CPNs which sponsor systematized corruption in and out of government, across the public and private sectors. The exclusionary nature of these networks discredits and weakens government and security forces, robs the state of revenue, undermines Afghan sovereignty, and perpetuates dependence on international assistance. In order to marginalize these networks, we must improve intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination to better understand their behaviors. We must integrate military, counternarcotics, and law enforcement efforts to apply a broad range of instruments to change their behavior or isolate them from sources of strength and support. Our devoted attention (to mapping) during advising and partnering efforts is critical to better understand these networks.

8. Support reformers. We must demonstrate support for honest and just Afghan leaders, inside and outside of the government. It is imperative to shift our assistance to those individuals and institutions that demonstrate a commitment to reform. Doing so will help strengthen and connect positive actors.

9. Support inclusive, traditional structures. Political exclusion creates grievances, weakens government institutions, and undermines the legitimacy of the government. Identify, partner with, inform and support local representative shuras as a check on corrupt or abusive appointed officials and a mechanism by which to hold them accountable.

10. Partner with Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) and demand their discipline. We recognize the sacrifices of the ANSF. However, we must also acknowledge the damaging effect the actions of few abusive actors within the security forces have on the overall mission. Tolerance of predatory behavior toward the populace makes ISAF appear complicit. The inability to provide government accountability, especially in the security forces, alienates the Afghan people and strengthens the perception of self-interested and predatory government as opposed to a people-focused and representative government. We must strive for 100 percent partnership and adherence to the values espoused in Afghan Ministerial Codes of Conduct, which explicitly forbids corrupt practices.[xii]

11. Create safe space for civic mobilization. ISAF should not reflexively regard calls for reform or public expressions of discontent as threats to stability. We should support the right of the Afghan people to promote a vibrant and peaceful civil society that serves as a check on government corruption and a vehicle for the non-violent redress of social and political grievances. If constituents have legitimate complaints against corrupt officials, we should work with the Afghan government to protect those who seek to peacefully exercise their civil liberties. We must facilitate dialogue between the community and the Afghan government — not suppress it. The freedom to protest has served as a positive force in our own nations; it can and should play the same role in Afghanistan.

Despite ISAF’s extensive support for the Afghan government, there have been unintended consequences attributed to corrupt behavior within the Afghan government, perhaps in anticipation of a post-ISAF world. Enhancing the lives of Afghans should be ISAF’s comparative advantage over the insurgents, yet its largesse has contributed to the plight of many Afghans. ISAF cannot afford to support those who prey upon the Afghan people; re-issuing "anti-corruption guidance" offers an important step to ensure continued emphasis is placed on the issue. Doing so will not just inform ISAF’s troops, but serve as a shot across the bow to corrupt Afghan officials.

Maj. Jaron S. Wharton is an active-duty infantry officer in the US Army and served in Afghanistan (2002 and 2010) and Iraq (2003-06). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the US Government, the Department of Defense or the US Army.

[i] I am especially grateful to members of ISAF for their assistance; especially members of Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat, Kim Kagan, Fred Kagan, MAJ Evans Hanson, former MAJ Brad Bowman and LTJG Luke Bronin.

[ii] Senior ISAF official interview conducted in September 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

[iii] Interpol website. Accessed on-line on August 22, 2010 at

[iv] Kilcullen, David. Attributed to Kilcullen following formal remarks made during a lecture during a Pentagon lecture in July 2009.

[v] Corruption in Afghanistan: Bribery as Reported by the Victims. UNODC. January, 2010. Page 3.

[vi] Corruption Perceptions Index 2010. Transparency International. Accessed on March 13, 2011. Afghanistan was tied with Myanmar for 176th out of 178 countries.

[vii] Senior ISAF official interview conducted in September 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

[viii] Chayes, Sarah. Interview conducted in August 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

[ix] This represents an often-quoted Afghan proverb.

[x] Senior ISAF official interview conducted in September 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

[xi] Selection composed after interview with former MAJ Brad Bowman, the principal author of the COMISAF’s Counterinsurgency Contracting Guidance in September 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

[xii] Andersen, Steven CAPT. Interview conducted in September 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. CAPT Andersen was responsible for anti-corruption efforts within NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

[xiii] No more footnotes. Stop reading!

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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