Will Afghanistan’s New Taliban Rulers Govern Corruptly?

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul unopposed, toppling the Western-backed government. The Taliban came to power in a very corrupt country. Afghan police regularly used informal checkpoints to extort truck drivers. Education and banking were also rife with corruption. Some estimates put the amount of bribes paid annually in Afghanistan at somewhere between $2 and $5 billion, or about 13 percent of the country’s GDP. Afghan military commanders siphoned off huge amounts of money by listing non-existent soldiers in their units, and then pocketing the salaries of these “ghost soldiers.” And on top of all this, former president Ashraf Ghani allegedly stole over $100 million on his way out of Afghanistan. From top to bottom, Afghanistan had a major corruption problem. 

The Taliban, by contrast, cultivated a reputation for relatively clean government. During the Taliban’s previous reign, from 1996 until 2001, bribes were uncommon, and the justice system was viewed as comparatively honest (and certainly less corrupt than that of the Western-backed government established after the Taliban’s ouster). Over the last two decades, the justice administered by Taliban judges in areas under Taliban control has been popular among many Afghans precisely because they perceive it as less corrupt and more efficient. This may explain why, despite the Taliban’s extremism and abysmal human rights record, the group was viewed favorably by many ordinary Afghans—at least when contrasted with the Western-backed government. Many commentators have suggested this factor contributed to the Taliban’s takeover of the country (see here and here). And since the Taliban has come to power, early reports suggest that it is governing in a relatedly non-corrupt manner. For example, business owners in Kabul—often the targets of shakedowns by security forces under the Ghani government—note that Taliban security forces check in on them regularly to offer help with security, without demanding bribes. Afghans also report that the police no longer extort bribe payments from truckers, who now just pay a single toll to the Taliban. More generally, citizens in places like Kabul have offered positive preliminary assessments, regarding the comparatively lower corruption of the new Taliban government.

Does this mean that, notwithstanding the Taliban’s terrible record on other issues, the Taliban government is likely to continue governing the country relatively cleanly? There is no way to know, but there are good reasons to be skeptical. Those who welcomed the Taliban as a less corrupt alternative to the Western-backed government are likely to be disappointed.

First of all, history is replete with examples of revolutionary groups that pledge to end corruption, only to sing a different tune once in power. Hamas is one such example: This militant Islamist group campaigned on a promise to eliminate the endemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, but quickly proved just as corrupt as the PA. Iran provides another example: The 1979 revolutionaries, led by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, overthrew the Western-backed (and extremely corrupt) Pahlavi regime, in part on an anticorruption rallying cry (and the promise of establishing an Islamist government). Several decades later, Iran is among the most corrupt countries in the world.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Taliban will follow this pattern. But a closer look at the conditions in Afghanistan and the characteristics of the Taliban suggest that it’s likely. Consider the following factors:

  • First, Taliban officials will be running a country with significant mineral resources. The connection between abundant natural resources and corruption is well-documented (see herehere and here). A further source of temptation will be the vast sums of foreign aid over which the Taliban and foreign countries and organizations, like the EU, are negotiating. Foreign aid exacerbated the former Western-backed government’s corruption problem, and we can probably expect the same if the Taliban is able to get the foreign aid floodgates reopened.
  • Second, the Taliban’s repressive approach toward the press (including its abuse of journalists and its recent guidelines restricting appropriate topics for reporting) will weaken one of the most important checks on corrupt abuses of power. Evidence across the world also shows a strong correlation between lack of press freedom and corruption (see also here and here). If reporters cannot uncover potential corruption or even criticize Taliban leadership, how can anyone be assured that the Taliban isn’t corrupt? Who will hold Taliban leadership accountable?  
  • Third, the Taliban’s un-inclusive interim government and its poor treatment of women (see herehere, and here) is bad not only for women, but for clean governance. Researchers have documented a strong positive correlation between gender inequality and corruption in society (even accounting for the effects of democratic governance). There is also a strong link between the share of women in public office and corruption. The Taliban’s exclusion of women from leadership roles and society in general, along with its sexist policies, does not bode well for the group’s governance going forward. 

If the Taliban does turn out to be just as corrupt as the former Western-backed government, what are the implications? For one, widespread corruption in the Taliban government would likely make what is currently being called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world even worse. If the Taliban become just as corrupt (or worse) than the Western-backed government, funds necessary for education, healthcare, security, and much more—from whatever source the Taliban obtains them—could be siphoned off, resulting in an even more impoverished and destitute population. Furthermore, the Taliban’s dreadful human rights record could worsen with widespread corruption—which tends to hollow out state institutions that are supposed to protect citizens from mistreatment—and is, as a general matter, strongly associated with human rights abuses (see here and here). 

Widespread corruption could also worsen the security situation and strengthen extremist groups even more violent and radical than the Taliban, such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). In much the same way that corruption in the Western-backed government contributed to the Taliban’s military success, it is not hard to imagine the same thing happening if an Islamic State affiliate or other extremist groups challenge the Taliban. Not only might security officials prove susceptible to bribery from these extremist groups, but if ordinary Afghans become disillusioned with the Taliban, many of them may embrace these more radical alternatives. (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for its part, drew adherents in part by touting its supposed fight against corrupt governments, and eliminating the corrupt governments of the Middle East was also one of Al Qaeda’s stated goals.) If the Taliban proves as corrupt as its Western-backed predecessor, no one should be surprised if it finds itself facing an increasingly legitimized insurgency of extremists decrying its corrupt behavior. If this happens, Afghanistan could well become a failed state, exporting mainly refugees and terrorism, and potentially drawing the United States and other countries back into conflict in the country.

So, as terrible as the human rights and security situations in Afghanistan are already, things could get worse if the Taliban’s clean governance turns dirty. Unfortunately, this appears likely. This possibility means that the wider international community has an interest in finding ways to promote integrity in the Taliban government, notwithstanding its many objectionable aspects. Whether the Taliban governs cleanly or not could make a real difference, not only in the lives of Afghans, but also of those in the broader region and potentially around the globe.

27 thoughts on “Will Afghanistan’s New Taliban Rulers Govern Corruptly?

  1. Interesting post — especially the pattern of extremists campaigning on supposed anticorruption grounds.

    Interested in any thoughts you might have on how the Taliban did manage to successfully cultivate a reputation for being non-corrupt in the ’90s. It seems like a bit of an anomaly compared to all the other examples.

    • Zach,

      That is a very interesting question. I’m not sure I have a perfect answer, but the answer I’ve settled on currently is the following: Afghanistan is a very different country today than it was in the 1990s. I can think of two ways this may impact our perception of the Taliban’s corruption in the 1990s. First, in the 1990s, the country’s mineral resources were largely unknown and the kind of patronage networks that have sprouted and thrived in the country today probably didn’t exist, or at least not to the extent they do now (they are largely the result of foreign aid post-9/11). There seems to be so much more ‘in the pot’ now than there was then, so the Taliban’s reputation for clean government just seems more plausible to me in the 1990s when compared to the group’s promises today. Second, perhaps the group was effective at cordoning off its corruption and keeping it out of the eyes of the people. It’s well-known that the Taliban was involved in the opium trade and helped facilitate illicit trade in goods last time it ruled Afghanistan, so perhaps in those particular areas (that seem ripe for corruption) the Taliban was corrupt but the group governed cleanly in its justice system and generally among the people. I’m not sure the group could do that as effectively today (if, indeed, this is what happened in the 1990s) because of the way mass media, the internet and journalists have penetrated the country.

      These are just some thoughts, though. Someone who is more of an expert on Afghanistan and the Taliban may be to offer a better answer.

      • Thanks for the great post and followup, Josh. Like Zach, your post made me wonder about the Taliban’s earlier reputation for clean government and whether that has any bearing on the situation today. In particular, I wonder whether ideology / religion influenced the Taliban’s hard line on corruption. At least to this point, it does seem that some of the views and practices that make the Taliban appalling from a human rights perspective may also contribute to their intolerance of corruption and their willingness to punish it harshly. That said, many revolutionary regimes wane in ideological fervor over time, so you may be right that the same will happen with the Taliban.

        • Hi Justin,

          Thanks for the question. I initially thought that the Taliban’s religiosity would factor larger into an analysis of how the group will govern in the future, too, but I’m not too sure of that given some things I have read about the group’s governance in the 1990s, specifically with regard to opium.

          As the group has recently promised, when it came to power in the 1990s, it promised and then proceeded to ban opium cultivation and heroin production and trafficking, based on the notion that such violates Sharia. Just a few years later, however, the group reversed course and permitted opium cultivation and trafficking, collecting taxes from farmers and providing protection to traffickers. A lot of commentators think that the group’s need for political legitimacy and the economic importance of opium to Afghanistan’s economy (as well as perhaps the taxes the Taliban was collecting on it) explain its reversal on this religion-based policy. Afghans who were interviewed at the time sing the praises of the Taliban for allowing them to grow opium, so it seems to have had a legitimizing effect on the group’s government. The Taliban’s religious justification for the ban reversal is even more interesting, though. Basically, the group justified opium production and export at this time by claiming that it primarily affects non-Muslims and therefore is OK. Islamic law scholars have called this interpretation “gymnastic” and it seems frankly like a pretext. Did the group come to its religious senses a couple years later in 1999 when it banned opium again? I’m skeptical, given the group was under pressure Internationally to do so and it seemed calculated to gain international support.

          I think this bit of history potentially reveals the following lesson: the group is willing to compromise its religious policies and ideologies for its own gain. So, I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the Taliban’s religiosity or ideological fervor and I’m not so sure it will meaningfully factor into whether the group will govern corruptly in the future. Now, the one argument I can see in response is that perhaps for the Taliban some religious precepts are more important than others. Maybe drugs aren’t that big of a deal but corruption and women participating in public are? I guess there’s really now way to know, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Unfortunately, given everything that is happening in the country right now, the Taliban’s clean governance is probably the least of its problems.

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  3. This is a very interesting post, Josh.
    It raises many questions about anticorruption policy and human rights enforcement. A controversy that arises: does it matter whether a government is corrupt or not when the same government is responsible for human rights violations?

    • Hi Rafael, you raise an important question. The OHCHR, in addition to several scholars, have noted the important link between human rights and corruption and how corruption can stand in the way of full achievement of human rights, can lead to human rights violations and how countering corruption can strengthen human rights. In that sense, then, I think corruption should be apart of the human rights conversation–whether we’re talking about the Taliban or other governments.

  4. Part of the reason for their cleaner reputation in the 1990s may well be that when they appeared on the scene, there was a total collapse of central authority. If you traveled, you would be stopped by several people on the way asking for money. When the Taliban started gaining control, this got replaced by a single toll tax in one place rather than having to pay a bunch of different warlords and still not feeling safe that you wouldn’t be looted. So they were competing with complete anarchy and lawlessness with no central authority, which isn’t much of a competition to begin with. That said, even if we adjust for this, they were and are cleaner on corruption than the others by all accounts, with opium being the exception. Whether this continues to be the case and how this evolves over time of course remains to be seen, and I think Josh is making some very interesting points.

    • Aqil, thank you for filling us in on that. Based on your estimation, do you think the Taliban will continue governing cleanly, as they did in the 1990s? If so, it would be interesting to hear why. Do you know if the Taliban has mechanisms in place to punish corruption? One thing I couldn’t find anywhere was any reference to how the group fought or will fight corruption, an important question given the state of Afghanistan as the Taliban found it (that is, endemically corrupt). Do you have any insights on that?

      • Josh, apologies for the late reply. I’m afraid, I don’t have any special insights on whetehr the Taliban will continue to be cleaner or not. I share your skepticism though. But I think we probably need to talk to someone who has directly visited areas under their control for more informed insights.

        A couple of thoughts though:

        1. During their insurgency, they had to be cleaner because that was one of their major selling points. So in addition to ideology, there was also a strong incentive to remain clean and a disincentive to be corrupt. Secondly, those who were part of the insurgency were generally ideological hard liners.
        2. Now that they are in power, perhaps the incentive to remain corrupt will be less, especially in the absence of democratic competition and oversight from the media. It’s even possible that some of them might develop a sense of entitlement that they have paid their dues by suffering the hardships of the insurgency, and now it’s ok for them to benefit themselves a bit.
        3. But then, one can also think of counter-arguments to the above. One obvious one is that since the Karzai and Ghani govts were very corrupt, even if the Taliban become somewhat corrupt, they might still be better simply because of what they’re competing with. In short, I can’t really say.

        As for the question about how they controled corruption, according to David Kilcullen, they established an ombudsman’s office in their parallel govt during the insurgency where people could complain about the behavior of Taliban officials
        I don’t however know if they did this everywhere and what they’re doing after coming into power.

        • Aqil, thanks for the information. David Kilcullen’s work is always great–it will be interesting to see, if the government is able to stay in charge and keep the country from entirely collapsing–if it will maintain/implement an ombudsman’s office and other corruption-related institutions and laws.

          You make some great points on the Taliban’s selling points and the comparison between the group and the former Western-backed governments.

  5. Great post, Josh! I’m curious if you have thoughts about whether or how it might be possible to provide humanitarian aid in areas like Afghanistan without potentially having those funds fall prey to corruption. Are there best practices that have been established to avoid abuse?

    • Thank you for this insightful post, Josh!

      I too, have a similar question as Mayze concerning whether or not foreign aid could actually go to good use in Afghanistan. In addition to Mayze’s question of if there are best practices that have or can be established, I also am wondering if the Taliban won’t misappropriate funds in general, in order to avoid more scrutiny?

      • This is a really interesting question. Without claiming any expertise in foreign aid or how countries have distributed it historically to avoid corruption issues, what I’ve read on Afghanistan is that, recently, countries like Qatar that have already sent aid post-Taliban takeover, have tried to avoid enriching the Taliban or enlarging opportunities for corruption by distributing in-kind aid (like food, medicine, etc.), rather than giving cash. So that might be one way, although the Taliban could appropriate the goods, too, I suppose. It also seems that distribution through NGOs or other local aid groups, which has been done historically in various countries, may be difficult to do in Afghanistan given the authoritarian Taliban’s control and that many NGOs have fled the country.

  6. Awesome post, Josh. Your historical examples are extremely interesting, and I, too, think that the Taliban will follow the pattern of corruption. Do you know if there have been conversations within the international community as to how to promote integrity in the new government? If so, do you agree with how they plan to tackle it? If not, do you have any suggestions as to how the international community can engage with the Taliban government in attacking corruption, while distancing themselves from the otherwise detestable conduct?

  7. Great post, Josh!
    I completely agree with your observation of history. What matters the most is how those in power rule after the turbulent times and interim governance end.
    I’m quite intrigued by your last point though—though probably not the focus of this draft—and I find this correlation (or maybe even causation) between gender inequality and corruption very illuminating. It would be particularly challenging for Afghanistan and other countries like India.

  8. On a different note, the way the Afghan economy is collapsing could make this a moot discussion. Before the Taliban have the time and a chance to become financially corrupt, their first and foremost challenge is how to deal with what is turning into a humanitarian crisis. Being the extremists that they are, they don’t seem willing to show the amount of flexibility needed to gain international legitimacy, and the international community seems to have no serious plans or strategy to prevent Afghans from starving. The crisis could potentially delegitimize the Taliban well before corruption might. But the problem is that as things currently stand, the only alternative on the scene is the ISKP.

    • You make some important points and surely the humanitarian crisis is only the first of many hurdles for the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan. It also seems the Taliban is a bit more nuanced of an organization — there are the extremist hard-liners and then there seems to be some among the ranks who may be willing to work with the international community to get what they want. Time will tell if these factions can coexist within the Taliban. Finally, do you make anything of the National Resistance Front in Panjshir? (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/18/mujahideen-resistance-taliban-ahmad-massoud/).

      • Indeed, the Taliban are not a monolithic entity, and how things will play out between the various factions remains to be seen.

        As for the Panjshir group, your guess is as good as mine. Or may be better. Since they haven’t demonstrated any real capacity to mount any effective resistance thus far, for now, I personally wouldn’t hold my breath. Their leadership also doesn’t have any serious fighting credentials. Ahmad Massoud was hardly a kid when his father was assasinated, and has no real experience running an insurgency. And Amrullah Saleh is a bit of a nut.

        That said, from history, we do know that resistance in Afghanistan develops slowly when it does. There was almost no resistance when the Americans took the country but here we are today. So the fact that the Taliban have been able to grab power without any challenge doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any resistance as they become unpopular. But a lot needs to happen for any genuine resistance to develop, and that too of a progressive type rather than the one represented by the ISKP. And then there’s the role of other countries. For example, if this resistance is supported by India with the goal of cultivating an anti-Pakistan government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will inevitably support the other side more aggressively. That is one of the things that went wrong in the last 20 years.

  9. Very interesting post, Josh.

    I am really intrigued about the correlation between sex inequality and corruption and how the Taliban’s clean reputation could be affected by lacking of women’s rights. I am wondering if this correlation could be part of a broader view of the cause-effect relationship between corruption and political rights, particularly voting rights.

    • Hi Marcelle, yes it is an interesting correlation. You raise a great point about the link between corruption and broader political rights, as well, which has been studied by a lot of corruption scholars (see https://www.transparency.org/en/news/tackling-crisis-of-democracy-promoting-rule-of-law-and-fighting-corruption, where Transparency notes the close link between democratic institutions and corruption perception). This link may prove important if the Taliban cedes to international pressure and makes its government more inclusive and democratic, thus having the potential to reduce corruption long-term (although, that is notably a big “if” and if we learned anything from the Karzai and Ghani governments, it’s that political rights didn’t seem to affect corruption — there needs to be more beyond political rights, although that would be a good start in Afghanistan under Taliban rule).

  10. Josh, I am in the process of re-reading this. I recently finished a podcast from the New York Times, “The Decision of My Life.” The podcast doesn’t touch on corruption at all. In fact, it focuses exclusively on the life of a woman in her early twenties who, before this August, was studying to become a judge and, after this August, had to escape her family for fear of forced marriage to a Talib. Most often, coverage of Afghanistan (or, at least, my consumption of that coverage) looks like the NYT podcast. Less often, it looks like your blogpost.

    The issue of humanitarian aid, however, has potential to blend these two forms of coverage — the visceral and the, forgive me, academic — and propel the latter into the limelight. As winter approaches in Afghanistan, nine million people face starvation. The humanitarian crisis is exacerbated (caused?) by international mistrust of the Taliban. No one wants to give money to the Taliban.

    Should we feel this way? You make the point that the Taliban has a legacy/perception of anticorruption. I feel far more comfortable about the international community shelling out funds if those funds would emphatically not be siphoned off by the Taliban.

    • You make a good point on the issue of humanitarian aid blending the more human rights-focused aspects of coverage of Afghanistan with governance issues, and in particular, corruption, of the Taliban. I read a piece last night in Foreign Affairs that makes the case for much greater engagement between Western countries, including and especially the US, and the Taliban. The author powerfully stated, “There is no moral high ground in policies that lead to the starving of the Afghan population.” I think I agree with this point, although we should be careful about appearing to “wink” at the Taliban’s generally reprehensible behavior because of a serious humanitarian crisis (which I worry that the Taliban may be counting on–in other words, the group could view the crisis as a tool to get what they want, including money and recognition–in exchange for little compromise on its more unsavory policies). In the end, it’s a complicated issue and I don’t envy the decision makers here. I do think part of the solution may lie with regional players like Pakistan and China. I am hopeful about several international meetings this week–in India and in Pakistan–between the Taliban and various government leaders, so hopefully a solution will come of that.

  11. Josh – fascinating post and very timely. I think you make a convincing argument about the Taliban’s likelihood of turning corrupt in the future. I was wondering though, if the people in Afghanistan were already governed by a highly corrupt administration prior to the Taliban, do you really think that the Taliban following suit will greatly increase the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming a failed state? Although the consequences you mentioned will undoubtedly weaken the state, what makes a Taliban-corrupt administration so much more detrimental than a Ghani-corrupt one? I agree that the current humanitarian crisis and lack of cooperation from the Taliban to remediate the situation is enough to lead Afghanistan down a failed path – however I’m wondering if this failure can be entirely attributed to the resurgence of a corrupt government.

    • Ella, you raise a very interesting question which, as I interpreted it, was basically, is corruption the most significant variable leading to Afghanistan’s failed state status or is it something else, particularly considering the corruption of the Ghani government? I think I agree with your implicit argument that it probably isn’t, although I don’t think that renders corruption insignificant. It could be the case that corruption worsens the situation when basic human rights and representation are denied, as they are by the Taliban, in a way that doesn’t quite lead as directly to state failure when basic human rights and some democratic representation are protected. Just speculation, though.

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