Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

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Like the war in Iraq, major combat missions in Afghanistan ended in a matter of weeks. Yet a resilient and deadly insurgency continues to plague United States (US) efforts to bring a lasting peace to the unstable and impoverished land of Afghanistan. Combat missions and drone strikes continue to steal headlines and captivate the attention of senior commanders, while a larger and more important aspect of the overall mission creeps into the policy debate—corruption. Although many short-term solutions will involve further military missions, the long-term plan for solving the Afghan corruption problem hinges on development. Ultimately, the Afghan people need jobs, education, and basic infrastructure to govern a stable and independent nation of their own. To this end, the US and the Western world recognized the lack of progress made during the first eight years and have since recommitted to the development program. The 2009 surge sent 30,000 additional troops and flooded the Afghan economy with billions in investment and foreign aid. While some analysts disagree, officials credited the surge in Iraq with turning the tide in the war and facilitating a US pullout, and hoped a similar strategy would work in Afghanistan.[1] However, the combination of massive amounts of foreign money and a distracting insurgency produced unparalleled opportunities for corruption, drug trafficking, and general criminality. The CIA handed out millions of dollars in cash during the first few months of the occupation in an attempt to buy security, and Western donors disbursed billions of dollars for aid projects with little to no oversight. Opportunistic Afghan warlords and strongmen used the money to enrich themselves, buy senior appointments in the Karzai administration, and fund lucrative criminal enterprises like narcotics trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping.

The State Department calls these crimes “nexus activities” and considers them the largest obstacle to development because they prevent effective delivery of government services, alienate citizens, and fund further criminality. Despite official condemnation and efforts to combat corruption, the agendas and processes of the international development program convince many Afghans that America is directly responsible for the current instability and culture of impunity.

In this article, I examine the growing problem of corruption in Afghanistan and specifically the corruption tied to Western aid. I look at what constitutes corruption, who the actors are, and how they are able accomplish their self-serving goals. I also study how mismanagement of the development program and security costs fuel corruption and undermine Afghanistan’s fragile existence. The West needs to recognize that its current development program exacerbates the corruption problem and that long-term success in Afghanistan requires a smaller and better-managed, long-term international aid mission.

Forms and Scale of Corruption in Afghanistan

Afghanistan and the corruption-nexus problem are exceedingly complex issues. Despite significant economic, political, and social gains since 2001, the over-centralized, inefficient, and corrupt Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) fails to deliver the government services necessary to promote lasting peace and foster development. Afghanistan expert and Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barnett Rubin, says that a mere course correction is insufficient and a major strategy rethink is needed.[2] The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) responded by increasing levels of assistance and troops, but continued missteps suggest that Western officials still do not fully understand the situation.

The rise of the corruption problem in Afghanistan is dramatic.[3] Fifty-nine percent of Afghans rank public dishonesty as the biggest problem facing Afghanistan, and 52 percent reportedly paid bribes in 2009, totaling more than $2.5 billion or 23 percent of GDP (as compared to the opium economy, which was valued at $2.8 billion in 2009).[4] Afghanistan’s rank in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) continues to fall, reaching 176th place in 2008 and 179th in 2009 (out of 180).[5] The amounts and numbers of bribes paid doubled between 2007 and 2009.[6] The average yearly cost to an Afghan was $156 per year, or a third of the GDP per capita.[7] In 2010, only Somalia and Burma (Myanmar) ranked worse in the CPI.[8] Afghanistan’s corruption statistics are so bad that Global Integrity has not bothered to do a report on the country.[9] The same is true of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.[10]

Massive amounts of allocated aid, a lack of economic development (which makes it hard to absorb foreign assistance), and the immense pressure to spend rapidly exist within the framework of an inefficient and divided government. These factors produce unparalleled opportunities for graft, the use of public office for illicit personal gain. In the words of Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat who walked alone across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in January 2002, when you spend $125 billion per year, “you drown everything.”[11] According to everyday Afghans, development experts, and the top commanders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the ISAF, corruption now poses the single greatest threat to stability and development.[12] Corruption and the black-market opium economy provide huge amounts of capital for criminals and opportunists to expand into other forms of criminality like kidnapping, extortion, and fraud. According to the US State Department, “It is often difficult to differentiate between politically motivated criminal behavior, terrorism and/or traditional illegal activity.”[13]

Corruption, therefore, reaches debilitating proportions in Afghanistan and now poses the single greatest threat to the GIROA and the ISAF mission.[14] Corruption is the reason Rubin Barnett recommended a full strategy review and not a mere course correction.[15] The corruption problem is terrifying, but it does not mean the battle is lost. Most Afghans feel better off today than they did in 2001. The window of opportunity for tackling corruption is not closed.[16] Afghanistan is improving, but there is still much to do.

How Does Corruption Affect Development?

Academics often define corruption as “the illegal use of public office for private gain.”[17] Susan Rose-Ackerman, a Yale professor and one of the world’s most respected experts on corruption, says, “Corruption is a symptom that something has gone wrong in the management of the state.”[18] Bribes are an indication that the supply of services is not in line with demand.[19] In certain environments, if left unchecked, corruption can grow into a complex web of licit and illicit activity that poses a serious threat to economic stability and state security. Former Harvard professor Robert Rotberg writes, “hoary forms of corruption persist alongside and facilitate the spread of the newer, more potentially destructive modes of corruption.”[20] Essentially, globalization, the War on Terror, and a rapid growth in transnational crime all increase the threat that nations riddled by corruption pose to the global community.

Corruption is sometimes defended on the grounds that it is efficient and actually helps foster economic growth. The efficient corruption theory fails for four reasons: first, bribes only help isolated individuals and not the system as a whole; second, if the bribe being paid is beneficial to society, it should be legalized and made a part of the public fees; third, permitting corruption, even at the lowest levels, may facilitate a downward spiral toward a corruption trap where corruption breeds more corruption; and fourth, corruption undermines the legitimacy of the government, disillusions the population, and forces citizens to look for other service providers.[21] This last point is particularly relevant to the situation in Afghanistan. A 2010 survey found that only 7 percent of Afghans trust the government’s ability to deliver justice, a key post-conflict service.[22] The Norway-based anticorruption think tank, U4, agrees that corruption erodes government credibility, further harming democratic prospects and scaring away potential aid donors.[23]