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 here, here 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 here, here, 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.