Corruption in Afghanistan: How to Hold Onto Lessons Learned?


For some, corruption seems baked into the soil of Afghanistan–endemic to the culture and government to such a degree that confronting, let alone managing, it appears impossible. But as John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) since 2012, said at a report unveiling at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC this week, “Corruption is, of course, not unique to Afghanistan nor is it a recent development.”

It’s a bit of a paradox: corruption is as old as civilization but seems as difficult as ever to eradicate. One reason may be the inability of governments to retain–on the whole–lessons learned. Jodi Vittori, an Afghan policy adviser with Global Witness, told The Diplomat that the role of corruption in conflict itself is fairly new to the discussion on state fragility in academic circles and that the discussion has not made the leap into military planning and policymaking circles.

“We recognize corruption,” Vittori said. “Multiple commanders have said corruption is an existential threat to our operations in Afghanistan. But implementing what to do about it” has lagged behind.

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Sopko noted that the U.S. military routinely digests lessons learned–fed by a network of after action reports and systematic collection of events and their outcome–and incorporates them into doctrine in a regular process, but the same can’t be said of the State, Justice, or Treasury Departments.

Few familiar with the war in Afghanistan over the past 15 years would push back on the idea that corruption is a problem. But, as the SIGAR argues in the first of a series of lessons learned reports, the U.S. government failed to initially appreciate the full scope of the corruption threat and the fundamental importance of anti-corruption efforts to the success of the mission.

Vittori referenced Federalist 51 in talking to The Diplomat. The paper penned by James Madison, one of the famed Federalist papers, outlines the necessity of checks and balances in government. “The U.S. system assumes that people are greedy,” Vittori said, going on to comment, however, that “when we go into other countries and try to develop governments we forget that.”

In the recent SIGAR report, it’s noted that by the time corruption began moving to center stage in discussions about Afghanistan, the mission began winding down and the resources needed–money and manpower–began fading away.

While corruption is nothing new, after 2001 in Afghanistan the problem intensified. “After 2001, internal drivers of corruption—including insecurity, weak systems of accountability, and the drug trade—combined with new drivers: a huge influx of foreign assistance, poor oversight of that assistance, and a willingness to partner with abusive and corrupt powerbrokers,” Sopko said.

Resistance–at Defense, State, and USAID–at the beginning of the war to prioritizing anti-corruption “flowed in part from an early, high-level aversion to ‘nation-building.’” Sopko and his program remain apolitical and thus avoided mentioning the Bush administration by name, but it was the Bush administration’s overwhelming focus on security, political stability, and physical reconstruction which “largely took precedence over building good governance and the rule of law”:

That approach rested on a false dichotomy. Anti-corruption efforts should not be seen as subordinate to or mutually exclusive with security or reconstruction. Rather, fighting corruption is a fundamental part of creating lasting security, political stability, and economic health.

By 2009, the U.S. government began to become more aware and alarmed by corruption in Afghanistan, finally linking the faltering of the mission with endemic corruption. The whole government, however, was not exactly on the same page.

Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment, in her introduction, commented that there was one area of the government that remained unexamined and therefore unaccountable with regard to corruption: the Central Intelligence Agency. So, while part of the endemic corruption identified by Sopko was a willingness to work with unsavory characters, the arm of the government that did so most often–the CIA–was not examined by the SIGAR team.

One case, covered in the report, does expose this contradiction. In 2010, through the course of a corruption investigation, Mohammad Zia Salehi was arrested after being recorded soliciting a bride to impede the investigation. Hours after his arrest he was released on President Hamid Karzai’s orders.

“The New York Times reported that Salehi, who had once worked for notorious warlord Rashid Dostum, was ‘being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Afghan and American officials,’” SIGAR notes. Herein lies part of the problem: one arm of the U.S. government was working at odds with the others.

While Sopko had good things to say about the present Afghan government, there is an inherent contradiction. SIGAR may “believe [President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah] are sincerely committed to fighting corruption,” but the fact remains that people like Dostum–who is first vice president–remain in key Afghan government positions.

“Corruption, in other words, is a corrosive acid—partly of our making—that eats away the base of every pillar of Afghan reconstruction, including security and political stability,” Sopko said. SIGAR’s mandate directs its gaze on U.S. government efforts, but the lessons learned may be of interest to the Afghans committed to weeding out corruption as well.

While the lessons learned report is not, as Sopko put it, a “how-to” manual, it does provided guidance the U.S. government ought not ignore. First, because corruption undermines U.S. strategic goals, anti-corruption should be a top priority in future contingency operations. Second, in order to counter corruption U.S. agencies need to jointly comprehend how corruption operates in the host country–this is best done through understanding the country’s political economy and through network analysis not unlike the examining of organized criminal networks. Third, not only should effective monitoring of aid be a priority but the U.S. government needs to consider how much assistance a country can effectively absorb. Fourth, the U.S. government should “limit alliances with malign powerbrokers,” or in more colloquial terms, be more careful about working with bad guys. Fifth, incorporating anti-corruption into security goals should not be viewed as a trade off but as a fundamental part. And finally, because solutions to endemic corruption are “fundamentally political,” the U.S. government “should bring to bear high-level, consistent political will when pressing the host government for reforms and ensuring U.S. policies and practices do not exacerbate corruption.”

With those lessons in hand, SIGAR makes 11 recommendations–three legislative and eight executive–to help institutionalize the lessons learned. The recommendations stretch from defining anti-corruption as a priority via legislation to authorizing sanctions of corrupt foreign officials; from sustainable technical solutions–like a joint vendor vetting unit–to solidifying into the strategic process an examination of political economy and networks in host countries. The recommendations are clearly aimed at overcoming an age-old hurdle: the inability of governments to retain systemic memory of hard-learned lessons.

In the end, that’s the rub: if the U.S. government cannot incorporate the lessons learned bumbling through Afghanistan, Washington is doomed to repeat them elsewhere.

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