The sudden collapse of the government in Afghanistan, as well as the tragic images of Afghans trying to flee the surging Taliban, has politicians and the U.S. commentariat scrambling for answers. Some have blamed the administration for a botched evacuation. Others have blamed presidents current and past, either for making ham-fisted deals or for ignoring the lessons of previous American occupations.
The Taliban’s swift conquest is attributable to many factors. But one that crosses multiple administrations yet is getting very little attention right now is corruption.
The Taliban’s swift conquest is attributable to many factors. But one that crosses multiple administrations yet is getting very little attention right now is corruption. Specifically, the kind of corruption the U.S. aided and abetted over many years, glad-handing crooked officials and stalling anti-corruption investigations, as ordinary Afghans struggled and watched officials grow wealthier and wealthier. While corruption can hardly be described as the sole reason for the Afghan government’s disintegration, it is a consistent through-line of multiple American administrations — and an element that the U.S. has consistently overlooked.
It’s not like the U.S. was unaware of the kind of corruption that exploded during the American occupation, or of the role that Washington played in fueling the kleptocratic graft. A few years ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a comprehensive report examining how the U.S. fanned the flames of elite predation and high-level corruption in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion. The details in the 164-page report are mind-boggling, not least for how clearly they illustrate just how thoroughly corrupt the U.S.-backed government had become.
The report detailed an investigation that caught one of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aides soliciting a bribe in order to block a separate corruption investigation. The aide was released, and the case was eventually dropped — but not before The New York Times revealed that he was secretly on the payroll of the CIA. As the SIGAR report noted, “By the time of [the aide’s] arrest and release, a pattern had been established: High-level Afghan officials who were suspected of corruption often evaded arrest or prosecution.”
Not long later, reports began trickling out that the CIA had also begun delivering “bags of cash” directly to the Afghan government. Dubbed “ghost money” by Karzai’s chief of staff, much of it went directly to corrupt warlords and politicians. Another analysis found that at least 40 percent of thousands of Department of Defense contracts, totaling tens of billions of dollars, ended up in the hands of criminal syndicates and criminal officials. As one American official said, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”
Even when American officials weren’t directly involved in spinning cash to crooked politicians, Washington seemed more than happy to look the other way while Afghan officials cashed in on their connections. For instance, after Kabul Bank, one of the country’s primary financial institutions, turned out to be little more than a Ponzi scheme — with politically connected Afghan figures siphoning off nearly $1 billion via fictitious companies — the U.S. paid lip service to pursuing an investigation and recovering the stolen assets. However, as the 2016 SIGAR report makes clear, nothing ever came of it: “Ultimately, the Afghan government suffered no major consequences, in terms of financial support from donors, for its failure to hold accountable and recover significant assets from the politically connected individuals who had defrauded the Afghan people.”
This pattern seems to have played out for years, with the U.S. prioritizing security concerns over fighting spiraling corruption. As the SIGAR report concluded, “The United States contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign powerbrokers.” Under the U.S.-backed government, billions of dollars in illicit funds left the country, flowing to money laundering hotspots like Dubai in order to be washed clean. Even when the U.S. acknowledged corruption as an ongoing threat to Afghan stability, as SIGAR reported, “security and political goals consistently trumped strong anti-corruption actions.” Or as the Washington Post summarized in 2019, “The U.S. flooded [Afghanistan] with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled.”
And local Afghans began to notice. As one Afghan contact told Sarah Chayes, the author of a seminal book on corruption in Afghanistan: “We just assume America wants the corruption. We have no other way of explaining… how America has behaved itself.” The Taliban capitalized on that reality, finding any armed opposition wilting in front of them, and seemingly unwilling to carry on fighting on behalf of a woefully corrupt government. (The Taliban’s path, it’s worth noting, was made far easier by the fact that significant percentages of Afghan defense forces existed only on paper, all in order to keep the finances flowing to crooked military commanders and their political backers.)
Should that be any surprise? Should it be a surprise that the Taliban would find an easy path into Kabul? Should it be a surprise that the willingness of the U.S. to foster kleptocracy in Afghanistan ended up blowing up in our faces, or that a corrupt client-state government would collapse as soon as its patron left?
Alexei Navalny, who knows a thing or two about the dangers of corruption, wrote this from his Russian jail cell after Kabul fell: “It is precisely the fact that the west 'failed to notice' the total corruption in Afghanistan — that western leaders preferred not to talk about a topic they found embarrassing — which was the most crucial factor in the victory of the Taliban (with the support of the population)."
Perhaps the only surprise is that, in a certain sense, none of this is surprising. All of this could have been — should have been — foreseen. This kind of strategic myopia, of U.S. forces paying off crooked politicos for the sake of supposed security, was always bound for failure.
Navalny isn't the only anti-corruption expert who could read the writing on the wall. “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts… wasn’t an insurgency,” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said years ago. “It was the weight of endemic corruption.” Regional analyst Catherine Putz concurred, writing, “Corruption lies at the heart of Kabul’s fall.” And Chayes, whose work on elite predation in Afghanistan is suddenly relevant, agreed, noting that the main reason for the Taliban’s surging success was “Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it.”
And they’re all exactly right. A government led by pillaging officials is hardly one that will encourage loyalty, and a military undermined by corrupt commanders is unlikely to put up the stiffest resistance possible. And the U.S. should have, for any number of reasons, known better. Time and again in Afghanistan, the U.S. said it was prioritizing security over efforts to combat corruption. And in the end, it got neither.