The headline, Afghanistan's Corruption Was Made In America, at Foreign Affairs is misleading. That the U.S., as the occupying power, exacerbated corruption in Afghanistan is undeniable-- and fully horrible and worthy of accountability for the American military-industrial-complex and it's pet politicians. In that sense, Afghanistan was like Iraq Part II. But "corruption" has been Afghanistan's middle name since... well, I'm not sure since when, but it was certainly part of the way of life when I visited the country in 1969 and again in 1971. And what we call corruption is embedded in the culture from top to bottom. There are no fixed prices in Asia; everything is negotiable. Sarah Chayes, incredibly never seemed to get that. I don't mean she never accepted it; I mean she never seems to have grokked it.
Sarah Chayes ran an NGO in Kandahar from 2002 through 2009 and then worked for the uppermost levels of the occupation's command. She wrote the book On Corruption in America-- And What Is At Stake, so you would imagine she is a terrific source. This is from a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs interview on the subject that she did in 2016:
She wrote that "It is likely Afghanistan will soon recede from U.S. headlines, even as the situation there goes from bad to worse. Politicians and pundits will point fingers; scholars and analysts will look for lessons. Many will focus on the fact that Americans failed to understand Afghanistan. That is surely true-- but perhaps less important than how badly we Americans have failed to understand our own country. On the surface, Afghanistan and the United States are vastly different places, home to different societies and cultures. And yet when it comes to allowing profiteers to influence policy and allowing corrupt and self-serving leaders to cripple the state and anger its citizens, the two countries have much in common."
It might be worth considering-- and hopefully rejecting-- whether there is a legitimate defense for systemic corruption. Here's the conservative case in favor of corruption, including even why members of Congress should, with utter impunity, continue to be bribed by wealthy special interests, a matter of course among all Republicans and more and more Democrats-- certainly all the Blue Dogs and New Dems from the Republican wing of the Democratic Party... but, alas, even beyond just them. Is it human nature?
Chayes reported that corruption on every level was endemic while the U.S. occupied Afghanistan. Historically there has never been an occupation of a foreign country by any power anywhere that hasn't been rifer with corruption. While researching Norwegian Nazi Vidkun Quisling yesterday, I learned he was found guilty-- and then judicially executed-- for three charges: high treason (selling Norway out to the Gwerman occupation), murder (for helping the German's exterminate Norway's Jews) and-- right up there with the other two-- embezzlement (for participating in the corruption that marked the German occupation). What Chayes wrote about the U.S. occupation was already embedded in Afghanistan when I was living in a small hamlet where no one had ever heard of the United States: "Almost every interaction with a government official, including teachers and doctors, involved extortion. And most Afghans weren’t able to take the risk I took in making a scene. They would have landed in jail. Instead, they just paid-- and their hearts took the blows. 'The police are supposed to be upholding the law,' complained another cooperative member a few years later, a former police officer himself. 'And they’re the ones breaking the law.' These officials-- the police and the clerks-- did not extort people politely. Afghans paid not just in cash but also in a far more valuable commodity: their dignity."
In India, at a post office, I stood in a long line to buy a stamp to mail a postcard, furious as upper caste pigs went right to the front of the line without anyone saying a word. Worse, when I finally got to the clerk, I had to argue with him about the cost of sending a postcard, basically because he wanted to put a few pennies in his pocket from the transaction. On the other hand, Asian corruption worked well for me too. I was arrested at the border with 50 kilos of hash built into my van. My van and hash were seized and I was tossed into jail. My business partner was a relative of the king. He got me out in a day and I had my van and hash back a day later. The first word everyone learns in Asia is baksheesh, although Chayes never uses it.
"In the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan," she wrote, "the Taliban’s swift reconquest of the country, and the chaotic, bloody exodus that has followed, U.S. officials have lamented that the Afghans failed to put up a fight. But how did the Americans ever expect Afghans to keep risking their lives on behalf of a government that had abused them-- with Washington’s permission-- for decades?There is also another, deeper truth to grasp. The disaster in Afghanistan-- and the United States’ complicity in allowing corruption to cripple the Afghan state and make it loathsome to its own people-- is not only a failure of U.S. foreign policymaking. It is also a mirror, reflecting back a more florid version of the type of corruption that has long been undermining American democracy, as well." OK, absolutely, "as well," being the key phrase.
Corruption in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan wasn’t just a matter of constant street-level shakedowns. It was a system. No cops or customs agents got to put all their illicit gains in their own pockets. Some of that money flowed upward, in trickles that joined to form a mighty river of cash. Two surveys conducted in 2010 estimated the total amount paid in bribes each year in Afghanistan at between $2 billion and $5 billion—an amount equal to at least 13 percent of the country’s GDP. In return for the kickbacks, officials at the top sent protection back down the line.
The networks that ran Afghanistan were flexible and dynamic, beset by internal rivalries as well as alliances. They spanned what Westerners often misperceive as an impermeable wall between the public sector and the supposedly private businesspeople and heads of local “nonprofits” who corralled most of the international assistance that found its way to Afghanistan. These networks often operated like diversified family businesses: the nephew of a provincial governor would get a major reconstruction contract, the son of the governor’s brother-in-law would get a plum job as an interpreter for U.S. officials, and the governor’s cousin would drive opium shipments to the Iranian border. All three were ultimately part of the same enterprise.
Westerners often scratched their heads at the persistent lack of capacity in Afghan governing institutions. But the sophisticated networks controlling those institutions never intended to govern. Their objective was self-enrichment. And at that task, they proved spectacularly successful. [Sounds like the Republican Party? The "No Labels" wing of the Democratic Party?]
The errors that enabled this kind of government to take hold date back to the very beginning of the U.S.-led intervention, when American forces armed rag-tag proxy militias to serve as ersatz ground troops in the fight against the Taliban. The militias received spiffy new battle fatigues and automatic rifles but no training or oversight. In recent weeks, pictures of Taliban fighters wielding batons against desperate crowds at the airport in Kabul have horrified the world. But in the summer of 2002, similar scenes took place, with little subsequent outrage, when U.S.-backed militias set up checkpoints around Kandahar and smacked around ordinary Afghans who refused to pay bribes. Truck drivers, families on their way to weddings, and even kids on bikes got a taste of those batons.
In time, U.S. military intelligence officers figured out how to map the social networks of small-time Taliban commanders. But they never explored the links between local officials and the heads of construction or logistics companies that got to bid on U.S.-funded contracts. No one was comparing the actual quality of raw materials used with what was marked down in the budget. We Americans had no idea who we were dealing with.
Ordinary Afghans, on the other hand, could see who was getting rich. They noticed whose villages received the most lavish development projects. And Western civilian and military officials bolstered the standing of corrupt Afghan officials by partnering with them ostentatiously and unconditionally. They stood by their sides at ribbon cuttings and consulted them on military tactics. Those Afghan officials could then credibly threaten to call down a U.S. raid or an airstrike on anyone who got out of line.
Poor Sarah-- Stanley McChrystal's anti-corruption task force head-- wanted to charge right in and end the endemic baksheesh that went right up the ranks to President Hamid Karzai, whose family was stashing millions of (US taxpayer) dollars in accounts around the world-- way more elaborately that Quisling ever had. The occupation leaders must have laughed at her behind her back but she grew frustrated that none of her proposals were ever taken seriously by McChrystal, Petraeus or, especially, by Obama’s national security advisers James Jones and Tom Donilon and realized she was spinning her wheels with "make-work."
She's still frustrated and still seething. "Civilian officials at the Pentagon and their counterparts at the U.S. Department of State and in the intelligence agencies," she wrote, "had long dismissed corruption as a significant factor in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Many subscribed to the belief that corruption was just part of Afghan culture-- as if anyone willingly accepts being humiliated and robbed by government officials. In more than a decade of working to expose and fight corruption in Afghanistan, I was never told by a single Afghan, 'We don’t really mind corruption; it’s part of our culture.' Such comments about Afghanistan invariably came only from Westerners. Other U.S. officials contended that petty corruption was so common that Afghans simply took it for granted and that high-level corruption was too politically charged to confront. To Afghans, the explanation was simpler. 'America must want the corruption,' I remember my cooperative’s chief financial officer remarking." She saw the trees and missed the forest. Her idealism is beautiful but she's dead wrong. And the fact that the word "baksheesh" never shows up in her essay, is just sad. She reported on this perfect tree, again completely missing the forest:
The precedent for Karzai’s impunity had been established in the wake of the Afghan presidential election of 2009. Karzai had brazenly stolen it by declaring some Taliban-infested districts safe for voting and then negotiating with the Taliban to allow for the entry and exit of ballot boxes—but not to allow voters free access to polling stations. The result was empty ballot boxes that could then be stuffed. Afghan friends regaled me with descriptions of poll workers they had observed in rural villages firing their guns in the air while on the phone to officials in Kabul. “We’re having a tough time here,” the election officials would shout into the phone. “Can you give us a few more days to get the boxes to you?” Then they would go back to filling out fraudulent ballots.
In some cases, UN investigators who opened sealed boxes found intact pads of ballots inside, all filled out in the same ink. But Washington declined to call for a new election. Instead, the Obama administration dispatched John Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts who was then chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to try to reason with Karzai. In the end, the official results emerged from a negotiation: Karzai would still win but by fewer votes. That, ultimately, was the type of democracy that Americans cultivated in Afghanistan: one where the rules are rewritten on the fly by those who amass the most money and power and where elections are settled not at the ballot box but by those who already hold office.
She concluded by talking about something she understands far better than Afghanistan; the U.S.A. and noted that "For all the mismanagement and corruption that hollowed out the Afghan state, consider this: How well have American leaders been governing in recent decades? They have started and lost two wars, turned free markets over to an unfettered financial services industry that proceeded to nearly bring down the global economy, colluded in a burgeoning opioid crisis, and bungled their response to a global pandemic. And they have promulgated policies that have hastened environmental catastrophes, raising the question of how much longer the earth will sustain human habitation. And how have the architects of these disasters and their cronies been doing? Never better. Consider the skyrocketing incomes and assets of executives in the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries, investment bankers, and defense contractors, as well as the lawyers and other professionals who provide them with high-end services. Their staggering wealth and comfortable protection from the calamities they have unleashed attest to their success. Not success at leadership, of course. But maybe leadership isn’t their objective. Maybe, like their Afghan counterparts, their primary objective is just making money."
How corrupt, structurally (rather than personally), is our own country? How wedded to corruption is conservatism and the political bodies-- like the Supreme Court-- that they control?