October marks the 20th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom and the start of the U.S. state-building project in Afghanistan. The main focus of this effort — the Afghan government — did not make it to the anniversary.
The overnight collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 caught many by surprise. Certainly, no one anticipated the chaotic situation that unfolded at Kabul International Airport in the last days of the U.S. evacuation. Even so, the writing was on the wall; cracks had appeared long ago. Years of excessive corruption at all levels of the Afghan government, enabled partly by the international community, crippled the Afghan government. This created a legitimacy crisis that contributed to the rapid downfall of the government in Kabul.
Corruption in the Shadows
In June 2020, John Sopko, head of the leading U.S. government oversight agency for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), warned that corruption was “the most insidious threat” facing the Afghan government at the moment. He argued that the gap between the public and the government had widened due to corruption, resulting in a situation where Afghans had to bribe officials to be able to access the most basic public services.
As quoted by the Economist, Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat, said that in Afghanistan, “from your birth certificate to your dead certificate and whatever comes in between, somehow you have to bribe.” Graeme Smith, a journalist and author of “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan,” on the eve of a recent screening of his documentary “The Ghosts of Afghanistan” in Berlin told me that corruption in the last 20 years was treated as a side issue, despite it playing a central role in the collapse of the Afghan government.
As noted by U.N. Special Rapporteur Diego Gracia-Sayán, corruption has “direct damaging consequences” on governance, weakening the capacity of the judicial system while, on the other hand, decreasing citizens’ trust in judicial institutions. It would appear, therefore, that there exists a correlation between delaying the provision of justice and the subsequent growth of corruption. In Afghanistan, the weak judiciary has often bent before the will of the powerful, who can take advantage of their political connections. Others, less fortunate and unable to use such advantages, pay bribes and suffer from frustration due to lengthy processes. As a result, people (as much as 80 percent by one estimate) made use of an informal justice system or turned to the Taliban for assistance. These actions had a compounding effect on weakening the Afghan government’s legitimacy, something which it was in strong need of.
Following the controversial 2014 presidential election, which resulted in the creation of the National Unity Government (NUG) led by President Ashraf Ghani, hopes were high. Many believed that the former World Bank technocrat was the right man for the job of tackling corruption. Ghani’s initials steps, including establishing the Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC) to address major corruption crimes, were promising. Reforms in other sectors such as public procurement resulted in some degree of success. In 2020, the World Bank noted that the procurement reforms saved the Afghan government an estimated $868 million – a considerable amount, given that the entire Afghan government budget was $5.5 billion that year.
Working with civil society, the Afghan government took steps to introduce anti-corruption measures. For instance, Afghanistan’s Access to Information Law, approved in 2018, ranks first in the world. In addition, Afghanistan’s remarkably free media allowed investigative journalists to exert greater scrutiny on government abuse of public funds.
That being said, the government’s fight against corruption can hardly be seen as a success story. While the government initiated well-intentioned reform programs to fight corruption, it did the opposite in other areas. The government’s shortcoming on adequate funding for more than a dozen anti-corruption agencies (ACAs), and limited political support to relevant actors, weakened anti-corruption efforts writ large. Furthermore, skilled staff were lacking, with overlapping mandates hindering their work. Surprising few, some of the ACAs ended up blackmailing rather than helping the government fight corruption. Furthermore, political interference from Arg, the Afghan presidential palace, and MPs did little to help the matter. Both former presidents Ashraf Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai used the ACAs as “attack dogs” against political opponents. In a final attempt to draft an anti-corruption law and bring the many ACAs under one roof, the government disregarded inputs provided by civil society members.
Equally complicit was the international community, due in large part to its mismanagement of assistance. A complete analysis of how financial assistance coming into Afghanistan was handled by donors raises important questions. Too much money, with little or no oversight, was flooded into Afghanistan, which had no institutional mechanism to properly handle such resources. One estimate by SIGAR puts the total amount donated by the United States alone to be valued at $145 billion in development assistance over the past 20 years. As noted by the U.S. watchdog, there were notable allegations of “waste, fraud and abuse” against the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. A CNN summary of SIGAR’s reports highlighted 10 examples, including a cargo fleet with an initial value of half a billion dollars selling for scraps at a paltry $40,000, a fancy $85 million hotel which never opened, and a health care facility which had coordinates placing it in the Mediterranean Sea. These are only a few examples of such rampant waste of resources.
Some, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, argue that the May 2020 troop withdrawal under the Doha agreement with the Taliban provided the basis for the collapse of the government. There is certainly some truth to that. The Taliban saw no incentive to truly engage in further talks or to agree to a power-sharing deal with Kabul while the Americans were already on their way out. The decisive blow came earlier, however, when the U.S. decided not to include the Afghan government in the peace negotiations in the first place. Years of excessive corruption in the Afghan government had weakened its position at the negotiation table. The U.S. prioritizing security over state-building and development resulted in achieving neither.
Challenges Before the Taliban
There is no understanding of what a Taliban anti-corruption policy may eventually look like – at least not at the moment. Although the Taliban are known for having little tolerance for corruption, they are still vulnerable. Fighting corruption and governing, in general, is more challenging than achieving success on the battleground. Endemic corruption has infiltrated every level of Afghan society. Afghanistan ranks 165th out of 180 countries and territories on Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index (CPI). As the Taliban pushes for international recognition, it should ensure that good anti-corruption laws, such as the access to information law from the past government, should be in place. Furthermore, the increasingly shrinking space available for media and civil society to participate is worrisome and will not help in the fight against corruption.
Any future Afghan government that ignores prioritizing anti-corruption will find itself in hot water sooner or later. Creating an environment that includes a vibrant civil society and free media is essential for tackling corruption in developing economies such as Afghanistan.