Commentary Magazine


Implications and Lessons of Afghanistan Corruption

According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

After more than 12 years of war in Afghanstan, American patience has worn thin. President Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces “on schedule.” Many will undoubtedly applaud that decision, and some will question the wisdom of involving ourselves in Afghanistan in the first place. It is important to fill security vacuums lest al-Qaeda sink its roots in ungoverned areas. The real lesson Washington should learn is not whether the United States should have taken on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but rather whether we should have pumped so much money into Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Many progressives and realists say Pentagon spending is too high.

The real waste of money over the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, has been USAID, which has very little to show for its efforts in other places. Plans that sound good on paper can be disastrous in real life, not only because they waste taxpayer money but also—as this corruption report would suggest—they catalyze corruption. Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society. Perhaps the best way to contain corruption is to simply not flood countries with cash, no matter how well-meaning the motives of our diplomats and development advocates.