"Corruption is Governance": Reflections on the failure to address corruption in Afghanistan
By Arne Strand, Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute
A year since the US pullout of Afghanistan, what lessons should we anti-corruption practitioners take? Indeed, the lessons are sobering. And for me, to have watched corruption destroy Afghanistan has been deeply painful, although still a far cry from the millions of Afghans who’ve been deprived of their development and rights.
From 2012 onwards, the grand scale of corruption in Afghanistan became increasingly visible to anyone paying attention. Security and development results hardly matched US investments: over $89 billion USD for security assistance and more than $36 billion USD for governance and development. Neither humanitarian assistance nor development projects yielded expected results. According to the UNDP, poverty in Afghanistan has increased dramatically since 2014, while at the same time Afghan property investments in Dubai constitute close to 8 % of Afghanistan’s total GDPs.
Despite persistent warnings from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) since 2008, politicians, the military, and aid bureaucrats lacked sufficient political will to act on very clear signals. Corruption permeated all parts of the Afghan state: a corruption so deeply entrenched it harmed the country’s ability to provide security and even the most basic services for the majority of its citizens.
Back in 2009, Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analyst Network was already warning that the international community was partly to blame. “If the internationals want to be taken seriously on the issue of corruption,” she wrote, “they should start thinking about what kind of serious and public steps they can take, to show they are dealing with it.”
Choosing the easy way out
The August 2021 SIGAR report “What We Need to Learn,” summarizing twenty years of experience, concluded that the US systematically downplayed early warning signs of the extent of corruption. Nor were other nations and agencies outspoken when they identified misuse of funds, major procurement scams, or exaggerated the number of Afghan teachers and soldiers. The report pointed out two factors of special importance to illustrate the sheer scale and embeddedness of corruption, as well as why, despite warnings, no sufficient measures to curb the corruption were undertaken.
"There’s never an easy way out when corruption was as systemic as it was in Afghanistan. However, to avoid repeating these failures, donor agencies and politicians need to acknowledge the devastating effects corruption can produce."
First, the US and the international community in general were too preoccupied with security matters to care much about governance: “U.S. officials believed the solution to insecurity was pouring ever more resources into Afghan institutions – but the absence of progress after the surge of civilian and military assistance between 2009 and 2011 made it clear that the fundamental problems were unlikely to be addressed by changing resource levels.”
Second, corruption was institutionalized through both formal and informal systems, and the Afghan elite quickly responded to any attempt to curb corruption: “Rather than reform and improve, Afghan institutions and powerbrokers found ways to co-opt the funds for their own purposes, which only worsened the problems these programs were meant to address. When U.S. officials eventually recognized this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground.”
An old Afghan colleague explained to me that in Afghanistan “corruption is governance.” The statement reminds us that corruption serves an important purpose for those who control and benefit from it. For Afghanistan it served the broader rationale of maintaining a governance and rent extracting system that ensured a continuity of elite networks’ control over the Afghan state, hidden behind a façade of democratization and the fight against terrorism.
The importance placed on the War on Terror—and to avoid a collapse of the Afghan state-building project—led international donors to continue the support over twenty years despite growing and persistent evidence of corruption, nepotism, and governance and development failures. The result was a lack of political will to hold the most corrupt government officials accountable.
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The international community chose the easiest way out: It raised concerns over corruption yet maintained the flow of funding to avoid the collapse of an increasingly aid-dependent Afghan state. Some donors, acknowledging their inability to safeguard their investments, shifted funding toward multilateral trust-funds for risk sharing. The responsibility to control and prevent corruption was thereby shifted over to fund administrators such as the United Nation Development Programme and the World Bank.
Now, one year after the U.S. pullout, how can we avoid repeating our failures to confront corruption in Afghanistan?
Signs of systemic corruption
Fortunately, our understanding of corruption has developed; it is constantly informed by the complexity anti-corruption practitioners encounter. Through work in fragile states, practitioners have come to grasp just how systemic and embedded corruption can be—and how neither bureaucratic reforms nor collective action efforts may be sufficient to counter it. Moreover, we’ve realized that corruption persists because it functions to provide solutions to problems, albeit frequently at a high cost for vulnerable populations, governance, statebuilding, and peacebuilding.
Drawing on our lessons from Afghanistan and work on other fragile states in Somaliland and Syria, U4 identified three criteria for what constitutes “systemic corruption.” Doing so, we hope to help analyze and identify potential ways to counter and reduce corruption in fragile states and settings.
"An old Afghan colleague explained to me that in Afghanistan “corruption is governance.” The statement reminds us that corruption serves an important purpose for those who control and benefit from it. For Afghanistan it served the broader rationale of maintaining a governance and rent extracting system that ensured a continuity of elite networks’ control over the Afghan state, hidden behind a façade of democratization and the fight against terrorism."
Broadly speaking, systemic corruption is when corruption is an integral part of the state’s economic, social and political system, i.e., where most people have no alternative but to engage in corrupt behavior. When the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Afghanistan was a clear-cut case of a country suffering from systemic corruption. However, the same criteria can likely be identified in other fragile states and, thus, we can possibly act earlier to address this systemic corruption than was the case for Afghanistan.
Three Criteria of Systemic Corruption
Multi-actor and organized. Here corruption is not a single transaction but rather a “coordinated coalition of the corrupt,” in which the span of the actors involved can vary. When corruption is systemic, like in the Afghan case, it is easy for corrupt actors to seize new opportunities and to fend off efforts to curb corruption. In Afghanistan a small elite and its networks divided ministries and government positions among themselves and their affiliates to secure control. The Kabul Bank, where both the President’s and Defense Minister’s brothers served on the Board, was used to obtain loans for their private investments. Even more alarming, the bank ensured elites gained access to property purchased in Dubai. And, equally troubling, funding of election campaigns for their preferred presidential candidate.
(Partly) institutionalized. In Afghanistan, as in other countries where corruption is systemic, an informal system operated with its own set of rules and agreements within the formal system. The consequences were far-reaching, so much so that that changing a single minister made little difference. In cases of systemic corruption, the network operating in the shadows always remains in control. Sarah Chayes describes the situation in Afghanistan as the opposite of a patronage system, where money moves upward from corrupt actors to the government for their continued “permissions to extract rents.”
Serves a broader rationale. A corrupted system is self-sustaining and reenforcing: it serves social and political functions that go beyond individual and group interests. This embeds corruption in political power and social normative logics, even when it violates national laws or social and ethical norms. In Afghanistan, this dynamic led to a staggering number of “ghost soldiers” whose salaries ended up in the pockets (and foreign accounts) of the military leadership. Numerous sources cite “ghost soldiers” as a major reason for the rapid disintegration of the Afghan army. The societal impact was that many Afghans found it extremely difficult to resist becoming part of the corrupted system. Peers pressured them to ensure the same gains as “everyone else” and prepare their family and network for worse times to come.
Corruption—the straw that broke the camel’s back
The corruption permeating the Afghan state has been evident all along. Tragically, had the US and the international community not tolerated this corruption as a small price to pay for political stability but rightly understood it as a major threat to the Afghan state building process, they could have addressed it at an early stage. After all, the corruption in Afghanistan was known and known early: newspapers and TV broadcasts ran stories of election rigging, shady procurement schemes, and of officials caught with millions of US dollars in their luggage. When the Afghan government did not react, but generally downplayed corruption allegations, donors should have collectively stated clear conditions and consequences of any failure from the Afghan government to meet them.
That didn’t, however, take place beyond repeated demands on the government to ensure better financial control. Rather, funding was continued, and even increased, to shore up weak state functions. Everyone could not have been punished, nor should all aid have been cut. But had the most corrupted ministers and military leaders been taken to court back in 2012, and sentenced, it’s reasonable to think that corruption could have been reduced and trust in the government shored up.
What’s for certain is that despite President Biden and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s claims, blame cannot be placed on the Afghans and their leadership alone. Many Afghans merely seized the opportunity to put the lavish funding that was offered to them in their own pockets and to maintain their networks. What was underestimated by both international actors and Afghan elites was how the sheer scale of corruption and mismanagement undermined and eroded the Afghan people’s trust in their politicians, government and institutions. When push came to shove, the Afghan people were unwilling to defend or fight for the Afghan state, a state that had failed them on all accounts.
There’s never an easy way out when corruption was as systemic as it was in Afghanistan. However, to avoid repeating these failures, donor agencies and politicians need to acknowledge the devastating effects corruption can produce. A staring point in other fragile states is not only to apply a more nuanced corruption analysis of how it is organized, but to have the courage and political will to prescribe the right measures to counter corruption and to see these measures through.
Arne Strand is Senior Researcher with the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and previous Director of the U4 Anti-corruption Resource Centre. Strand has an NGO background from work in Afghanistan, a PhD in Post-War Recovery Studies and has led a number of research projects and evaluations on development and humanitarian assistance, migration and assisted return, anti-corruption, fragile states and state and peace building.