How America Corrupted Afghanistan: Time to Look in the Mirror

The U.S. cannot ignore Afghan corruption and hope for any kind of victory or meaningful end state in the Afghan conflict. The fact remains, however, that corruption is only one of the problems that the U.S. and its allies must address in an active war zone, and anti-corruption drives are largely a triumph of hope over experience in societies with a history of systematic corruption. They almost inevitably do little more than prosecute a few token scapegoats and turn the leaders of any serious anti-corruption program into martyrs. This is especially true of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, where the host government needs the corrupt and loyal powerbrokers and where the U.S. needs the support of a corrupt host government.

This situation is highly unlikely to change in the middle of a war where Karzai needs all of the internal support he can get, and the rest of the Afghan political and legal system either is too weak to pose a challenge or would like a share of the money. Moreover, the problem with corruption is scarcely limited to Karzai or leaders at the top. It affects all of Afghan society from top to bottom. Unfortunately, the worst aspects of this corruption are largely the product of our mistakes.

It is time that we as Americans – in government, in the media, and as analysts and academics – took a hard look at the causes of corruption in Afghanistan. The fact is that we are at least as much to blame for what has happened as the Afghans, and we have been grindingly slow to either admit our faults or to correct them.

The good news is that we can probably do more to fight the worst causes of Afghan corruption by changing our own actions than by any amount of effort to encourage Afghan anti-corruption drives. Much of the level of corruption that threatens any real hope of victory in Afghanistan can be reduced and eliminated if the U.S., its allies, and other aid donors tightly control the influx of outside money, limit its flow to honest and capable Afghans at every level of government, and provide the transparency to allow Afghans to see how honestly and effectively the money is used.

The key elements of such an approach are already set forth in a comprehensive Anti-Corruption Strategy for Afghanistan. The most recent draft of the strategy includes four pillars designed to work in concert with international anti-corruption policies to help the Afghan government: 

  • Improve the transparency and accountability of its institutions to reduce corrupt practices.
  • Improve financial oversight.
  • Build judicial capacity to investigate, prosecute, punish, and remove corrupt officials from power.
  • Aid civil society organizations in educating and empowering the public to participate in transparent and accountable governance.

This strategy recognize the extent which the US and allied countries have been the driving force that has push Afghan corruption to unacceptable levels over the last eight years. As recent US government reporting indicates, it goes far beyond anti-corruption drives and focuses on, “leveraging diplomatic and assistance tools to develop the political will to take fighting corruption seriously, (2) reforming civilian and military procurement practices, (3) achieving significant reform and independence of the High Office of Oversight, and (4) disclosing public information to highlight government anti-corruption actions and provide Afghan citizens additional resources to participate in accountable, transparent governance.”  It calls for new efforts to link assistance is linked to improved governance using metrics agreed upon in advance with the Afghan government, and coordinate US assistance with a number of other donors.

Many of these recommendations should have been implemented the day that the US began its intervention in Afghanistan, been negotiated with our allies to ensure their broad application, made a key focus of UNAMA, and applied to all NGOs before they were allowed to operate in country or raise funds. Moreover, a number of additional measures are needed to improvement the efforts within the US military and aid efforts, creating a unified approach to fighting corruption based on real-world priorities and Afghan needs and perceptions, and  lay the ground work for transition

A new CSIS Report examines these issues in detail.  The report is entitled “How America Corrupted Afghanistan: Time to Look in the Mirror” and can be downloaded from the CSIS website here:

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy