A Realistic Anticorruption Strategy for Afghanistan

We can't expect Afghanistan to function like a mature democracy.

Last year’s McChrystal assessment of the situation in Afghanistan famously and dramatically concluded that corruption in the Afghan government was comparable to the insurgency itself in posing a serious and potentially fatal threat to the country. As such, General Petraeus has been right to focus intently on corruption since assuming command.

Yet there have often been problems with the U.S.-led approach to combating corruption in Afghanistan. Although it is partly a matter of semantics and tactics rather than core strategy, we would suggest that the United States and international community more generally reframe the issue. The challenge should be seen, and described publicly, primarily as one of improving governance in Afghanistan rather than tackling a culture of criminality. Afghan government corruption is justifiably offensive to those countries spilling their blood and treasure into Afghanistan, but corruption is merely a symptom of the more fundamental malady; the heart of the Afghan problem is ineffective governance.

If the United States in particular is too blunt, too dogmatic and too unilateral about the corruption issue, we can create several obstacles to success. First, an overly aggressive anticorruption approach is antithetical to our partnering construct and bilateralizes the problem in a situation where the United States is already resented by some in Afghanistan as an overbearing foreign presence. As a result, especially when we have conversations about corruption in public, we make President Karzai defensive, since we are in effect accusing him of running, or at least condoning, a criminal government. There is currently little political will in Kabul to address issues of grand corruption in Afghanistan. An indirect approach to the problem—via broader institutional accountability mechanisms that improve governance—would be less threatening and more likely to stick.

Second, in describing corruption as a cancer, we adopt too absolutist an approach to addressing the problem. We should remain mindful that in a population-centric counterinsurgency, the people of Afghanistan will be the ultimate arbiter of the acceptable level of corruption. By criminalizing routine corruption, we not only encourage unrealistic expectations in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere about the progress that is achievable over the next few years, but we may miss opportunities to work with Afghan "reconciliables"—individuals who may have had some corrupt tendencies but also try to provide a certain level of effective governance. Third, by charging ahead with a too-ambitious Department of Defense–driven anticorruption effort, we risk causing strains within the American government as well as the broader international community.

Viewing the Afghan government through a twenty-first-century, Western prism leads to misunderstanding the problem, and applying measures better suited to a mature democracy, one with well-established government institutions and rule of law. The broader political-science literature on fighting corruption and improving governance points to a better way of thinking about this problem. One key insight from renowned development expert Paul Collier and others is that young democracies with weak checks on presidential powers and an easy source of cash tend to have major problems with corruption—so Afghanistan’s challenges, rather than being viewed primarily as criminal, should be expected in some ways. Taking this tone with the Karzai government can improve atmospherics and bolster our odds of eliciting cooperative behavior from Kabul.

Another key finding from MIT’s Benjamin Olken and other researchers is that trained, independent auditors deployed from the central government to various parts of the country can make a meaningful difference in reducing malfeasance and improving the quality of government performance. Government auditors could also counter the “inverse pyramid” patronage network that is common in the Karzai administration, a network in which corrupt officials “invest” in purchasing government positions and their “dividends” are paid in the form of bribes and extortion. Reforming Afghanistan’s government will require reversing this trend, or at least mitigating it, through such auditors and other governmental improvements.

And perhaps most importantly of all, the development literature shows that a number of countries around the world have in fact made headway in combating corruption and improving governance over the years. Brookings Institution and World Bank scholars Daniel Kaufmann, Aart Kraay and Pablo Zoido-Lobaton document progress in places ranging from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Georgia and Albania to Tanzania and Rwanda. We should try to involve more experts from such countries in the conversation about fighting corruption in Afghanistan. President Karzai and others might react more positively to hearing suggestions about how to reduce bribes, check nepotism, and improve governance from Indonesians or Tanzanians rather than Americans.

With U.S. partnering assistance, Afghanistan’s government has improved. We are now seeing points of light in the anticorruption effort, such as President Karzai’s new specialized anticorruption agency—the High Office of Oversight—which is mandated to oversee and coordinate corruption prevention efforts and assist ministries in developing and implementing anticorruption plans and strategies. The President’s anticorruption efforts are in their infancy and will require time and continued support.