Guest Post: The US and Afghanistan Need a New, Long-Term Anticorruption Strategy

Ahmad Shah Katawazai, Defense Liaison at the Embassy of Afghanistan to the United States, contributes the following guest post:

President-elect Trump has declared that he will stop American taxpayers’ money from being squandered abroad. This position poses a threat to a continued US presence in Afghanistan, in light of Afghanistan’s endemic corruption. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-Elect Trump’s pick to be National Security Advisor, has been arguing from a long time that abetting corrupt officials–“backing thugs”–would tarnish the U.S. military’s reputation. Thus Trump might threaten Afghan officials that the US will cut off foreign aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down on corruption.

The U.S.-led coalition mission in Afghanistan laid the foundations for systemic corruption right from the start of the war in 2001. The U.S. provided millions of dollars in cash to the so-called warlords, as well as opium and arms smugglers. These warlords and criminals needed to protect themselves, and they found that the best way to do so was to secure high-level governmental positions. It is these people who are mainly responsible for running the mafia-style corruption machine in Afghanistan.

Yet Western policymakers neglected this problem, largely because they were focusing more on security as their top priority. What these policymakers failed to grasp was the fact that corruption could turn into a serious security threat in Afghanistan. For too long the focus was solely on fighting the insurgents, but corruption undermined this fight by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and the West. Corruption, including the diversion of Afghan resources and donor aid for the private gain of the political elite, impoverished and alienated the common people. Public anger over massive graft and corruption in the country turned people against the government and the West, thus strengthening the ranks of Taliban. Moreover, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)‘s recent report, “U.S. money was flowing to the insurgency via corruption.” Corruption in Afghanistan cuts across all aspects of the society, with 90% of Afghans saying that corruption is a problem in their daily lives, and this endemic corruption threatens the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government.

What has been achieved in the past 15 years in Afghanistan—at the cost of billions of dollars and the sacrifices of thousands of lives—today remains at jeopardy. The country is in a fragile and vulnerable position. Yet it would be shortsighted for the US to simply disengage, or threaten to cut off aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down sufficiently. What is needed both from the Afghan government and the new U.S. administration is a unified, long-term, practical, results-oriented strategy that could produce solid outcomes. It would be wise for the Trump administration to come up with such a strategy. Afghanistan should remain a priority because of its geo-strategic location and an important U.S. ally in the region. Given the existing circumstances and the need to bolster Afghanistan’s security and economy, and to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents, a long-term commitment and a coherent strategy to get corruption under control would be in the interests of both the U.S. and Afghan governments.

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