Best Defense

Afghan corruption: Here’s a long view that Major Wharton and others lack, especially about bottom-up solutions

By John Stuart Blackton Best Defense chief Afghanistan correspondent Before responding directly to Major Wharton, let me step back a bit and put the concept of Afghan corruption into context. The simple definition that most of the current practical work on corruption uses is something along the lines of: "corruption is the abuse of public ...

peretzp via Flickr
peretzp via Flickr

By John Stuart Blackton
Best Defense chief Afghanistan correspondent

Before responding directly to Major Wharton, let me step back a bit and put the concept of Afghan corruption into context.

The simple definition that most of the current practical work on corruption uses is something along the lines of: "corruption is the abuse of public position for private gain." This is a moral and legal perspective that assumes a shared social agreement on the distinction between public and private and an agreed moral and legal view of what constitutes abuse around that public/private distinction. 

These basic conditions have not been met for most of the last 500 years in Afghanistan. To the extent that they have a historical basis in the country, it is quite recent as I will endeavor to illustrate in my remarks today. 

The "abuse of public position for private gain" construct is a top-down view of the process. It takes the standpoint of the state. For my purposes, as the United States Military tries to relate the real, empirical fact of widespread corruption in Afghanistan to a population-centric approach to achieving stabilization of security, it may make more sense to take a bottom-up view of the process. 

Viewed from the perspective of a 30-year old Afghan male head of household, corruption (let’s simplify it to "bribery") is a functional tool. One pays a bribe for one of two reasons: 

  • To get something, or
  • To prevent something

A bribe is only useful to our putative Afghan father if he is transacting with an official who has something to offer (public services, for example) or with an official who seeks to do something damaging to him that can be averted with the bribe. 

For most of Afghan history over the last five centuries the state was not sufficiently powerful to make institutional bribery a very useful, instrumental tool for an ordinary Afghan man. The state offered almost no services (so he couldn’t buy much of value from an official) and the state was not actively taking too much (it was not a notable collector of taxes and it was not raising and maintaining a large standing army by conscription). Afghanistan was on the periphery of two great imperial systems that did, in fact, offer a range of public services and possess serious capability to take away goods, land and chattels from their citizens. The Mogul Empire, to the east, was a massive taxation machine raising enormous revenues to support an expensive imperial establishment and a massive standing army. The Persian state, just to the west, was a similarly expansive tax machine with a costly central government. Elaborate and extensive systems of corruption permeated life in the Mogul empire and in Persia. Even minor citizens at the bottom paid bribes to mitigate having to pay more onerous taxes or having to supply sons to the army. They paid bribes to gain favors and services from an elaborate system of local and provincial governors who could offer or withhold things of considerable value to citizens. 

But Afghanistan, sitting on the periphery of these two great and greatly corrupted, imperial systems, had little central government, little tax collection, and little to offer or withhold. So the finely-honed, multi-tiered elaborate traditions of Persian and Moghul corruption had little room to grow in the minimally governed spaces of Afghanistan. 

This long era of cultural and historical isolation from complex, systematic multi-layered corruption in Afghanistan began to unwind in the 20th century and more specifically in the era of post-World War II Cold War competition for influence.

Major Jaron S. Wharton’s thoughts on corruption in Afghanistan are reasonable and well-considered, but I can say with considerable certainty that they are wrong. His heart is in the right place and his recommendations would probably work under more moderate conditions. If, for example, we were worried about limiting corruption resulting from U.S. military spending in Japan in 1946, his prescription for more careful USG contracting procedures would be on largely the mark.

Major Wharton writes that, "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." I speak from long experience in Afghanistan and the surrounding region in responding that corruption is most definitely endemic in Afghanistan. Wharton is correct that the current scale of corruption reflects the current scale of U.S. defense and assistance spending, but the modalities of current corruption do not deviate greatly from "traditional norms and practices."

The patterns of corruption that prevail today in Afghanistan have their roots in both the culture and in the history of the Afghans, but the dominant features of the contemporary patterns of corruption are most firmly rooted not in the distant historical past, but in the relatively modern patterns of governance and economic activity that emerged in Afghanistan in the years after World War II. They are "traditional," but much of that "tradition" is 20th century rather than 16th century. 

As I noted above, the era of cultural and historical isolation from complex, systematic multi-layered corruption in Afghanistan began to in the context of post-WWII Cold War competition for influence. This was the period where the American’s sought dominance of the South of Afghanistan and the Russians sought to dominate the North. Kabul sought to profit from the competition. 

The formative period for the new patterns of governmental and private behaviors that now define contemporary Afghan corruption was the first administration of Mohammad Daoud Khan from 1953 to 1963 and his second reign from 1973-78. During this period the United States and the Soviet Union were actively competing for influence in Afghanistan, with both superpowers using foreign aid (economic aid, military aid, police aid, and intelligence aid) as the primary currency with which to buy that influence.

The Daoud era was Afghanistan’s first serious attempt at Western style étatisme. Both the U.S. and the Russians, each for their own reasons, encouraged this étatisme.

Previous Afghan governments had drawn up tentative national development plans as early as 1930, but the first comprehensive economic plan implemented by an Afghan government was Daoud’s Five Year Development Plan of 1956-61. Two more five-year plans followed, and the heretofore unfamiliar concept began to take hold that the government in Kabul was actually responsible for the provision of services, for the creation of economic infrastructure, for the fostering of business and industry and for the country’s general economic progress.

With the growth of formal state power in the two Daoud eras, Afghans began to distinguish two modern modes of corruption: First, what is commonly called "administrative corruption" (the misuse of their public position by government officials for private gain) and second what the World Bank now calls "state capture corruption" (whereby political elites manipulate state policies and regulations for political and personal gain).

Examples of the "administrative corruption" that emerged in Afghanistan in the ’60s included the practice of demanding money from the public for required government forms and documents; bribery in return for obtaining an electricity connection, bribes to ensure uninterrupted power service, or under-assessment of electricity bills; theft and misappropriation of fuel from municipal and provincial departments, and the like.

Examples of "state capture" type corruption in the Daoud era included the frequent compromising of the state security apparatus by the drug industry, and distortions of government policies with respect to allocation of Afghan mineral resources and natural gas resources in ways that improperly shifted the control of sovereign wealth into private hands.

It is not too difficult to identify some striking parallels between the two Daoud eras (1953-63 and 1973-78) and the contemporary Karzai era (2002 to 2010). Now, as then, the government of Afghanistan collected almost no taxes. Now as then, foreign aid (economic aid, military aid, police aid, intelligence aid) dominated public revenues. Now as then, Afghanistan is the world’s most aid dependent economy. Now as then, corruption and narcotics dominated the economy.

Major Wharton hopes that the current devastating wave of corruption can be curtailed by better contracting practices on the part of DoD and the U.S. government. In fact, the DoD has neither the staff, the patience nor the inclination to undertake the kind of closely monitored, fine-grained contract management that might stem the corruption.

The rate of Afghan corruption will begin to decline precipitately when the volume of USG expenditures in Afghanistan begin to decline precipitately. This may well happen in the near to medium term.

John Stuart Blackton is a retired Senior Foreign Service officer who is currently the Managing Director of Strategic Advisory Services. He served multiple tours in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, and Tunisia , inter alia, and served four consecutive years in the Army in Indochina. 

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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