The war in Afghanistan is already the longest conflict in United States history. Over the past fifteen years, the U.S. government has poured over $100 billion into the reconstruction effort—more than the Marshall Plan. In spite of this massive public investment, Afghanistan’s government is weak, its economy is moribund, and the Taliban remains an active threat in the region. Contributing to all of those problems is persistent, systemic corruption. This problem was highlighted recently by a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which served as a harsh reminder not only that corruption in Afghanistan remains is daunting problem despite years of the reconstruction effort, but also that the U.S. has failed to address the problem, and has sometimes made it even worse. According to the SIGAR report, the U.S. failed to grasp the importance of combating corruption as part of a broader effort to improve security and stability, with policymakers and military leaders instead viewing anticorruption as a competing goal that had to be traded off against the seemingly more pressing security goals.
The SIGAR report is valuable in many ways, and its emphasis on viewing anticorruption and security as complementary rather than competing goals is welcome. (This corruption-insecurity link, and its relative neglect, have been emphasized by many other outside critics as well, most recently and prominently Sarah Chayes, who has argued that when government breaks down under the weight of corruption, people in those countries are pushed towards radicalization.) But the SIGAR report’s suggestion that the U.S. failed to adequately confront corruption in Afghanistan because leaders failed (until recently) to grasp this complementarity is not quite right.
In fact, the U.S. military for years had recognized anticorruption as a key element of efforts to promote stability and nation building in Afghanistan. In 2006, the Department of Defense labeled corruption as a “crisis in governance” and a 2009 report from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul called corruption “endemic throughout society.” A 2009 Counterinsurgency Guide by the heads of USAID and the Departments of State and Defense notes the importance of confronting corruption. The Joint Chiefs of Staff listed corruption reduction as condition of a successful counterinsurgency operation, and the Army has declared corruption as a threat to stability. General David Petraeus, then commander for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wrote in 2010 corruption affects “security, governance, and economic progress.” The outgoing commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, in 2013 stated that corruption was “the existential, strategic threat to Afghanistan.”
This presents a puzzle: If U.S. and military leaders were in fact aware of the threat that corruption posed to both security and national reconstruction in Afghanistan, then why was corruption allowed to continue to fester? Why were there such deficiencies in the oversight mechanisms that could detect and catch corruption? The problem was not so much lack of information. Rather, the problem was the politics of maintaining support for the war effort.
General Petraeus believed that the perception of the war in Afghanistan, as viewed by leaders in Washington, was vital in determining the overall success of the war effort. From this standpoint, pushing anticorruption efforts to the back-burner made sense—even as the military publicly recognized the importance of fighting corruption—because emphasizing corruption might well have made the conflict look worse in the short term, for two reasons:
- First, exposing corruption in Afghanistan’s government might have undermined U.S. claims about the progress of the reconstruction effort. Consider, for example, USAID’s claim that its aid projects helped boost school enrollment from one million to eight million, including dramatically increasing enrollment for girls. In fact, there are credible allegations that officials under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai lied about how many schools were operating in order to obtain more funding, and that much of the USAID funding was in fact siphoned off. Public exposure of this sort of fraud would likely dampen the U.S. public’s enthusiasm for pumping resources into Afghanistan. Thus, even as U.S. leaders may have recognized that this sort of corruption was bad for the overall effort, they may have been reluctant to push too hard to expose these sorts of fraud, for fear of undermining politically useful “success stories.”
- Second, vigorous anticorruption efforts would expose the unsavory characters that the U.S. has worked with for years in the region. For example, the Department of Defense relies on local truckers and Afghan private security providers to oversee the supply chain in Afghanistan responsible for feeding, fueling, and arming American troops around the country. The funds going to these contractors have been linked to insurgents, extortion, and corruption. Severing ties with corrupt actors would effectively be an admission that in some ways, the U.S. had made things worse, not better. When many lawmakers were already weary of the war, such a rude awakening could have increased support for a speedy withdrawal. The White House was pushing to get out of Afghanistan faster than the Pentagon wanted, and so the Pentagon may have been hesitant (consciously or subconsciously) to push anticorruption efforts that would have exposed—and publicized—the pervasive corruption among the U.S. military’s local partners.
If this explanation is correct—if the reason the U.S. failed to tackle corruption in Afghanistan was not lack of awareness, but rather the politics of retaining domestic support for the war and reconstruction efforts—it should influence how we consider the recommendations of the SIGAR report. The report argues that Congress should pass a law stating that anticorruption is a national security goal; the report further calls on various executive departments to establish offices of anticorruption to compile best practices on the topic. These may well be worthwhile suggestions. But given that military and experts are already well aware of the links between security, stability, and corruption, more public pronouncements and internal documents would not have much of an impact. Rather, we should focus on reforms directly target corruption. For example, the U.S. should strengthen the vendor vetting system for contractors and subcontractors, in order to screen out corrupt actors before they are hired. This would entail larger upfront costs and would increase the time to complete the contracting process, but revealing a proposed vendor was unscrupulous before issuing the contract would create less political backlash than doing so after they had already spent U.S. funds. Other ideas include moderating the flow of aid to a level where it can be effectively absorbed by Afghanistan’s weak civil institutions, and improving oversight mechanisms once funds or contracts are issued. These proposals would likely face resistance from groups in Afghanistan and would face technical and practical challenges in implementation. But in the long run, they could help mitigate the perverse incentives that military leaders face.