Why Did the U.S. Fail to Fight Corruption in Afghanistan Effectively?

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.

11 thoughts on “Why Did the U.S. Fail to Fight Corruption in Afghanistan Effectively?

  1. Very very interesting. Extending the logic, I am tempted to suggest, we in India should have anti-corruption should be part of communal harmony mission.

  2. Nino, the revelation of the role politics plays in how the U.S. government deals with corruption problems in Afghanistan is really interesting! Politics probably plays an important part in many other governments’ anticorruption efforts, despite varying contexts. As you suggested towards the end, the proposals directly targeting at corruption face a lot of technical and practical challenges but they will have long-run benefits. And the political fear is that the U.S.’s reconstrution efforts in Afghanistan will lose domestic support before seeing any real progress on those fronts. I am wondering whether there is a way of changing the political rhetoric to being more open about the corruption problems in the current program, stressing that corruption in a foreign country with systemic corruption and a weak government is not something the U.S. can help reduce in any short term, and seeking public support of giving the U.S. government more time to deal with corruption problems in Afghanistan (if that’s a goal that would gain the public’s support). In any case, it is a helpful reminder that making preventive efforts to reduce or to at least not fuel the already rampant corruption with its funds would likely create less political backlash than people feeling that the U.S. governemnt compromised the goal of curbing corruption and has not tried enough.

    • Thank you for the comment, Yixuan. The point you raise about changing rhetoric is something I struggled with when writing the piece. If my theory that political optics is what’s responsible for what’s impeding anticorruption efforts, it’s tough to find a practical solution. Lack of political candor is simple to diagnose, but difficult to cure.

  3. Very interesting analysis. Like you, I’ve always had a nagging skepticism about the claim that the US military (and US government more generally) did not take corruption seriously or did not see it as relevant to the security agenda, given the focus on U.S. counter-insurgency strategy on “winning hearts and minds.” But I’m not sure I find your alternative explanation entirely satisfactory either. A few thoughts here;

    First, you’re right that exposing corruption would have created bad PR for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. But increasing support for the extremists, coupled with a worsening of the security situation overall, would create much worse PR, wouldn’t it? If the military really did internalize the lesson that failing to root out corruption would make the security situation worse, then it seems awfully short-sighted to avoid trying to stamp out corruption for fear of some bad press, doesn’t it? I suppose folks like Sarah Chayes and the authors of the SIGAR report would say that though the U.S. may have paid lip service to the idea that corruption was a threat to security, they didn’t really take it seriously. Is that wrong? And if so, what’s the alternative explanation?

    Second, if the U.S. really did take this issue seriously–if the leadership recognized the ways in which corruption threatened to undermine U.S. security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan–then why didn’t the U.S. undertake the sorts of measures you describe in your last paragraph? I can see why the U.S. might have been reluctant to expose the corruption of its current partners, but why didn’t it take more aggressive measures at the front end to vet potential future partners?

    Here’s an alternative explanation, to which I’d love to get your reaction: Perhaps even if leaders recognized the risks posed by corruption, and sincerely wanted to address it, it’s just hard to change the bureaucratic routines and institutional norms of a big, complex, bureaucratic institution like the U.S. military (or intelligence services or development aid administration). There may have been some efforts by the leadership to pay more heed to this issue, but on a day to day basis (especially under the immense pressure of operating in a place like Afghanistan), these organizations continued to do more or less what they traditionally do. On this account, the problem wasn’t lack of recognition by the leadership of the corruption-security connection, but neither was it a politically-motivated desire to avoid calling attention to the problem. Rather, the problem was basically one of bureaucratic inertia. Does that seem like a plausible account to you? If not, why not?

    • Thanks for the comment, Professor. As with most things in life, there is no one, single explanation. I’m sure that bureaucratic inertia did play a role, as that theory can help explain all sorts of inefficient behavior in large organizations.

      The supply chain example I use in the piece is a good example. The Defenses Department had the unenviable task of setting up a multi-billion dollar supply chain to get fuel, equipment, ammunition, and food across vast and inhospitable terrain. It’s hard to effectively fight corruption when you’re worried about making sure that bases and soldiers are well-fed and well-equipped.

      But the bureaucratic inertia theory doesn’t explain everything by itself either. It strikes me as odd that the leaders could repeatedly recognize the all-importance of corruption and yet be so sluggish to implement reforms unless there was something besides bureaucratic difficulties. Improving oversight mechanisms for funds disbursed, for instance, would be difficult, but not something totally foreign to what a military bureaucracy would ordinarily do.

      • Interesting blogs! I’m glad Afghanistan is still on the radar screens of some for the Afghan struggle needs more attention from all.

        As someone who led the first country-wide, multi-lateral donor anti-corruption assessment team in Afghanistan (2005), we concluded that virtually everyone there knew how pervasive corruption was then but that addressing it was not seen as a high priority by anyone. We met with the various powers that be there during our visit and heard from many contractors and NGOs just how bad and harmful it was. (At that time the military was not really seen as a major or informed player on the corruption front and our team was unfortunately not even aware of Sarah Chayes’ presence or work.)

        Our overall conclusion and recommendation was that the international community should get its own house in order and set the example before trying to tell the Afghan people what to do. When asked why there really was no accountability or whistleblower system in place for anyone to use there we were usually given blank stares. At the end of our month long tour President Karzai and his team cancelled our long awaited meeting with him and nothing changed or resulted from our report or recommendations. We were all very disappointed.

        So I think Nino’s overall conclusion in her last blog response probably sums up the situation best. Various issues she raises, as well as bureaucratic inertia, the lack of an anti-corruption strategy and the lack of independent institutions and oversight, coupled with a failure by the international community to realize it was shooting-itself in the rule of law foot by not holding itself or anyone else accountable for the rampant corruption it was clearly perpetuating through closed donor eyes, best explains the situation.

        The on-the-ground reality then was that no one had any concrete safe mechanism or way to report or blow the whistle on corruption and there was no political will nor any institutional means by anyone, including the entire international community and President Karzai himself, to do anything about it. The sad truth was and still is that the people of Afghanistan have very low expectations from their leaders or the international community.

        Given everything that has happened (or not happened) it will be very difficult to change that lawless, still unfolding picture in the minds of the people who matter the most — the Afghan people. As far as I can tell there is still no effective, safe whistleblower system in place there and even if it exists somewhere no one cares or dares to use it. If someone can not even report on corruption that explains an awful lot in Afghanistan and beyond.

  4. Pingback: Friday News Flip 14 October 2016 | Arconn Consult

  5. Vetting contractors is a good idea. Even though it is going to be a slow process changing ingrained habits, this should be done. The network of suppliers and the community that protects their establishment will be resistant but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the change.

  6. Pingback: Why Did the U.S. Fail to Fight Corruption in Afghanistan Effectively? | Anti Corruption Digest

  7. Perhaps if “corruption” was identified as a radical insurgent group…. as valid a target for drones etc.. as is Taliban then the result would have different. Pity we cant get all the corrupt to start their own religion and wear funny hats. But in the end I don’t think they the leaders of this group would be any harder to identify. In many countries, the corrupt aren’t to be found in mountains but in the biggest cities flaunting their wealth. Better still and to save cost… they can also be found in the donor capitals in hospitals and their children in schools….. sometimes they even become our citizens! ( I did once suggest to an AusAid representative that perhaps the most effective thing they could do to help Papua New Guinea was to banish all PNG MPs from owning property or having their children study in Australia. Given that Australian companies probably earn more than is given in aid ….. my suggestion was not treated very seriously.)

    Anyway back to my suggestion of naming “corruption” as a terrorist organization. While my suggestion might meant shooting a few friends, I suspect as you do, that corruption is probably in the longer term a more damaging enemy than many we place on terrorist blacklists. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if many “terrorist” organizations such end up being corrupted with any pretensions for revolution simply being a grab for what is in the trough.

    I also suspect that as for as long as we think that we can sub contract out the realization of what our consciences desire in terms of development…. especially using a lowest cost wins model we can only expect a mess. A Catholic priest who has been living in a remote part of the highlands of Papua New Guinea for thirty years, told me that one advantage of the way the Catholic church delivers its “humanitarian aid” is that they have to live with the consequences. In other words “less is more” and contractor vetting is only one part of the answer as there something bigger hiding in the corner we (including me) don’t want to face up to.

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