The Corruption-Security Nexus: Lessons from Afghanistan (Part 1)

This past February, Transparency International (TI) Germany released a study on the relationship between corruption and stability in conflict and post-conflict zones. Titled “Corruption as a Threat to Stability and Peace”, the report notes that corruption and conflict have a “symbiotic relationship,” in which corruption drives instability by encouraging rent-seeking behavior, undermining state institutions, and fueling social and political grievances, while institutional weakness in fragile or conflict-ridden states allows corruption to take root. (The U.S. military’s Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) Division released a report on a similar theme, focusing specifically on Afghanistan, around the same time. That report will be the subject of my next post.)

The good news, as TI relates it, is that both intervening military forces and peace-builders are taking note of the effects of corruption on security and are starting to implement efforts to fight corruption. The bad news is that the results of those efforts are decidedly mixed, and their long-term success is threatened by countervailing interests, like securing short-term peace agreements. Those observations are not all that surprising. Buried in the report, however, are a few unexpected observations that are worth highlighting.

First, although democratization is often viewed as a potential solution to systemic corruption and to persistent conflict, the report suggests that, at least in fragile states, democratization (or at least too rapid democratization) can be part of the problem. Using Afghanistan as a case study, the report notes that winning a democratic election lent legitimacy to the Karzai government in the eyes of the United States, and that sheen of democratic support made the U.S. reluctant to pull back its support when evidence of systemic corruption in the Karzai administration surfaced. Democratization can also lead to institutional instability, which might, in cyclical fashion, facilitate more corruption. The report suggests that, at least in the short term, democratization is a risky proposition in fragile, corruption-prone states.

This troubling observation, if accurate, suggests that rather than focusing chiefly on building a democratic electoral system, a more productive approach for fighting corruption and building security in conflict and post-conflict states would be one that also gives substantial weight to investment in improving the transparency and accountability of a (post-)conflict state’s existing governmental frameworks.

In addition, the TI report raises a serious concern that, as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its combat forces from Afghanistan, the states that have intervened in Afghanistan will prioritize more conventional security tasks, marginalizing anticorruption efforts. Indeed, there is the possibility that the end date for a U.S. force presence will translate into the effective end date for many anticorruption programs. That would be a mistake. Fighting corruption is critical to maintaining security, in Afghanistan and other fragile post-conflict states, and the transitional period is critical to ensuring that the work that has been done so far — which includes some surprising successes, like the NATO-led Shafafiyat (“transparency”) taskforce that partnered with the Afghan Ministry of Defense — will be sustained and expanded after U.S. forces withdraw.

As I noted at the outset, the U.S. military seems well aware of these concerns, as evidenced by the JCOA report on the relationship between corruption and security in Afghanistan, which provided both an assessment of the coalition’s efforts (or lack thereof) to address corruption, and a set of recommendations. I will discuss this report in my next post.

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