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.  Continue reading

Corruption in Crisis Situations: Why Should We Care? What Can We Do?

A Deloitte audit published a few weeks ago revealed that the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the aid management branch of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), could not account for $1 million in expenditures in 2013. The misappropriation of $1 million, out of $60 million in total spending, may not seem like a lot, but it could be a warning sign about just how much of the $3.1 billion in Syria relief coordinated by the UN in 2013 actually reached its intended targets, and how much was lost to corruption. This concern — which applies not only to Syria, but to humanitarian aid in other conflict zones like Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan — is closely related to the issue Rick’s earlier post raised about the scandal of corruption in development aid, which should not be written off simply as “leakage,” but which can undermine rather than promote development. A parallel argument applies to corruption in humanitarian assistance to conflict zones: it undermines security. Indeed, although corruption in aid destined for insecure areas raises similar problems to corruption in development aid more generally, there are three factors that make corruption in conflict zones a particularly challenging and high-stakes concern. Continue reading