Evidence of corruption in Afghanistan has been abundantly clear throughout the past 20 years, not only by the Afghan government but also by our own hand. Nation-building without heeding the local culture, and being consumed with process over outcome, lead the U.S. to support a fundamentally undemocratic and corrupt government in Afghanistan.
America attempted to promote democracy and freedom by facilitating elections, organizing a parliament, and recognizing its official leaders. However, we failed to develop strong, democratic governance at the most local level. The only kind of government the average Afghan saw was a distant cabal of individuals getting rich, seemingly backed by the U.S. To the average villager, it was inconceivable that America would allow such activities to occur without being complicit.
Afghan National Army Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat acknowledges, “the corruption endemic in Mr. Ghani’s government that flowed to senior military leadership … irreparably hobbled us.” The Afghan army’s morale was continuously undermined by a self-serving central government. While soldiers scrounged for their next round of ammunition, their conversations invariably turned to the latest rumors—lavish palace parties, politicians buying expensive properties in London and Paris, and the well-connected getting richer by the day. The fault does not, however, lie entirely with the Afghan government.
The U.S. Treasury Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations continued to provide funds without acting against individuals they knew were facilitating corrupt business practices. Various Inspectors General have released report after report detailing fraudulent and wasteful activities. Their efforts were largely ignored as the U.S. shoveled money into a pipeline that delivered only a trickle of benefit at the local level.
The Taliban patiently stood by, banking on the fact that the kleptocracy would ultimately alienate those living in rural areas. As people became increasingly disillusioned and angered by what was going on in Kabul, many came to view the Taliban as a potentially viable alternative. The Taliban were quick to exploit those feelings and cloaked their motives under the cover of religious morality and cultural legitimacy.
Once America announced an exit date, all bets were off. Over the intervening months, Afghan soldiers began preparing a course that would best serve them and protect their families. The central government was not an option. This left them only three choices: seek safety in their home village, join the Taliban, or die fighting a battle with minimal support from their own government.
The Taliban prepared the battlefield and used the months leading up to our withdrawal to bribe, coerce, and kill their enemies. Once the last U.S. transport lifted off from Bagram Airfield, the Taliban were ready to move. As Sun Tzu succinctly put it: “In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won.”
By early August, the Taliban had already won. All that was left was the march to Kabul to claim their prize.
The U.S. must recognize that its failure to act on known sources of corruption directly contributed to the Taliban’s victory. We did not give the Afghan people the government they needed. We gave them the government our system demanded. We propped up a central regime without creating any sustainable, legitimate local government structures in a country where tribal relations, and thus local governance, is critically important.
According to Sarah Chayes, who has run development organizations and assisted international military forces in Afghanistan since 2002, by not seeking out local Afghan leadership “Americans never absorbed critical information that was obvious to Afghans, such as the prevalence of corruption and the disgust it was generating.” American institutions built mirror images of themselves to ease their jobs and diffuse responsibility.
Corruption was increased by “poor [American] oversight and contracting practices by donors and the pressure to spend budgets quickly,” according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. America channeled funds into a felonious central government that never intended to meet the needs of its people. There is a common quip in Afghanistan: “if you wanted a decision from a Taliban court, you’d get one in the same day. If you wanted a decision from an Afghan court, you have to pay a corrupt judge and a corrupt lawyer to never get a decision.”
There is little doubt we could have beaten the Taliban militarily. What we could not defeat was the insidious rot of corruption that plagued both the U.S. and the Afghan governments—or perhaps we simply decided to ignore it.