Afghanistan's Corruption Imperils Its Future—and American Interests

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The U.S. is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan over the next year, but may leave a corrupt and highly dysfunctional country in its wake.

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U.S. paratroopers investigate the source of mortar fire in Afghanistan's Paktiya province. (Reuters)

If the Obama administrations wants to show that the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government can survive the U.S. troop withdrawal scheduled for 2014, it may need to do more to address the rampant corruption that endangers Afghanistan and, ultimately, U.S. interest there.

The U.S. has recently staged two major events on Afghanistan. First, on July 7, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Afghanistan would be officially designated as a "non-Nato ally of the United States" which makes it eligible for priority delivery of military hardware and U.S. help in buying arms and equipment. But the U.S. has thus far failed to indicate what level and kind of troop support -- or what type of other security capabilities -- will be available for Afghanistan after the hand-off.

Second, on July 8, the U.S. joined in an announcement of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework under which 70 international donors pledged $16 billion dollars over the next four years to make up Afghan fiscal shortfall and to improve institutions and services in the country, with up to 20 percent supposedly conditioned on Afghan progress in addressing corruption and creating better governance.

But the framework document bears little resemblance to a nation that Transparency International designates the third most corrupt in the world (176 out of 178), that the World Bank gauges the world's eleventh poorest, and that has absorbed more than $80 billion in non-military aid from the U.S. in the past 10 years with few concrete, let alone durable, gains. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes, "The lack of transparency and credibility has been a critical problem ... particularly in the almost total lack of credibility in reporting on the impact of aid, quality and integrity of governance and presence of a functioning justice system."

But neither the U.S "ally" announcement nor the donor announcement candidly address the fundamental question: Can Afghanistan survive as a fighting force and national government after 2014? Will ethnic rivalries among the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other groups; will renewed military pressure from the Taliban; will subversion by Pakistan; will the weakness and corruption of the central government lead to a civil war, a coup, a Taliban resurgence, or a territory run by tribal leaders and local militia? Such post-2014 developments could even allow a recidivist Afghanistan to again serve as a sanctuary for world terrorism -- a true tragedy in light of nearly 2,000 American killed, 16,000 American wounded, 12,000 Afghan civilian deaths, and U.S. expenditures of $400 billion or more to date.

The recurrent riddle of Afghanistan is that an effective Afghan Army and security effort depends on developing a legitimate Afghan state that can somehow command the allegiance of the disparate ethnic groups, develop accountable institutions, and nurture an economy that does not depend on opium and can help government pay its bills without significant foreign aid. Yet that goal seems as much a chimera today as it did ten years ago. And a critical preserve and adverse factor preventing development of a legitimate Afghan state -- given all the tribal and ethnic decentralizing forces -- is the endemic and corrosive corruption that has bedeviled and baffled the Americans.

The litany of corruption issues in Afghanistan is daunting: 30 to 50 percent of the economy consists of the illicit opium trade, which fuels criminal and insurgent elements. Recent presidential and parliamentary elections were characterized by a high incidence of electoral pay-offs and fraud. There was also the scandal at the Bank of Kabul, replete with phony loans to the Afghan elite. And the U.S. was recently forced to withdraw criticism of President Hamid Karzai's failure to address corruption and his insistence that such efforts to pursue "malign networks" of Afghan elites be removed from U.S. and other investigators. And billions in U.S. aid funds which have been misappropriated, worsening corruption, despite belated attempts by U.S. officials to track expenditures more carefully.

The state of crisis is summarized in a current Foreign Affairs article by Republican Stephen Hadley and Democrat John Podesta, chairs of a bipartisan working group on the future of Afghanistan.

[The Afghan government] is deeply flawed and, should the world stop compensating for its deficiencies, in danger of imploding....Officials often use formal state institutions to support patronage networks fueling high levels of corruption, cronyism and nepotism on the national and local levels...Karzai has failed...to advance a reform agenda...[instead opposing] measures that would have promoted greater accountability...The absence of transparent and effective systems of justice and law has provided Taliban insurgents with an opening to mobilize domestic opposition to the Afghan government.

Yet what will happen in the coming years, as America exits and the American public becomes even more alienated or indifferent, to address the unresolved problems and intractable Afghan issues of the last ten years? Wise people offer happy talk. Hadley and Podesta say that the U.S. must not just focus on a military strategy but use "its influence to pressure to the Karzai government to forge a legitimate Afghan state ... and address the flaws in governance that have alienated ordinary Afghans ... and fueled the insurgency." Says Secretary Clinton: "President Karzai has made a strong public commitment to stamping out corruption, implementing key reforms and building Afghanistan's institutions. We will support him and the government in that endeavor to enable Afghanistan to move forward toward self-reliance." But what influence do we really have over Karzai (and where is his "strong commitment"?) and the self-serving corruption among the Afghan elites and others? It is hard to believe such sensible people are saying such implausible things.

The international donors' Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework seems intended to mollify donor domestic audiences. Their announcement reads, "The Afghan government reaffirms its solemn commitment to strengthen governance, grounded in human rights, the rule of law and ...the Constitution, and holds it as integral to sustained economic growth and development." The key concept in the document is the donors' "monitoring of development and governance benchmarks in a transparent manner... [as a] powerful means to enable accountability to the Afghan people." These "commitments" which will be "monitored" are in five areas: elections; governance/rule of law; integrity of public finance and banking; taxes and budgets, at both national and local level; economic growth and development. Under each area is a set of "indicators," which are goals, not the means of reaching those goals (e.g. "enact and enforce the legal framework for fighting corruption").

What's missing is a candid explanation of the processes of social, political, and economic change that might transform Afghanistan into the model state of the Accountability Framework or an assessment of the history, culture, conditions, and political realities (Pakistan?) in Afghanistan that have made such change so difficult. Key questions are left unanswered. What are real timelines (Afghan government to determine later); who decides if milestones are missed; what are the consequences; will there be real "conditionality" tied to progress on anticorruption (measured how?). The sentence that wins the irony of the year award is that Afghans and donors "emphasize ... that they cannot continue 'business as usual' but must move from promise to practice." We have been in Afghanistan for 10 years and are now in exit mode, so how can we "practice" anything?

Afghanistan's corruption is an even more fraught an issue today than it has been in the past, as international withdrawal looms. It imperils a weak government and creates the risk (among other factors) that a transition from Karzai (whose term ends in 2014) will not move forward but will recede back to the conflicts and uncertainty that existed 10 years ago, raising the specter that the influence of the Taliban, Pakistan, and world terrorists could wax as U.S. strategic interests continue but its political interest wanes.

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Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance with High Integrity.

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