Grand Theft Autocracy


Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (Norton 2015)


In 2009 Sarah Chayes had an epiphany. A former NPR reporter who had fallen in love with Afghanistan while covering the U.S. invasion, Chayes had stayed on to run an NGO and then established a small business in Kandahar. Narullah, one of her employees, told her how his brother Najib refused to pay a bribe at the outskirts of Kandahar. After the soldiers hit him and smashed his phone, Najib paid but then called Narullah, who had previously been a policeman. Narullah called the local police chief who scoffed, “Did he die of it?” After relating this story to Chayes, Narullah declared, “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.”

For Chayes, everything fell into place as she realized, “Afghan government corruption was manufacturing Taliban.” From that revelation others followed. The Afghan government was not a weak state. In fact, it was all too effective at its core function — extracting wealth from the people of Afghanistan. Further, the United States government tolerated and often facilitated this corruption, assuming that this was simply how things were done. Looking beyond Afghanistan, Chayes saw an international problem in which developed nations tolerated and abetted corruption, which in turn fueled extremism and fostered instability.

In Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security Chayes, now a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, highlights corruption as a human rights problem that underpins international security problems.

Later in 2009, Chayes became an advisor to the U.S. military and — in accordance with military preferences — developed slides illustrating the corruption networks. When she gave a talk in Europe, these particular slides electrified her audience. Attendees from around the world — Nigeria, Columbia, Central Asia, and the Balkans — all remarked that this was exactly how their own country worked.

The slide that Chayes and her colleagues produced portrayed the Afghan government as an organized crime syndicate. Lower officials paid higher executives for their positions. The point of a position was to extract money from those below. A police chief expected to be paid by his officers so he could pay off the appropriate officials to keep his position. The officer demanded payoffs from the people, both enriching himself and allowing him to send payments up the chain. The methods in which a position could be monetized were creative and innumerable. Governors took bribes to direct contracts to their cronies, who in turn subcontracted the job in exchange for more fees. This was an iterative process that continued until no money was left to do the actual work. Police chiefs received payments to ignore drug smuggling or ran opium cartels themselves. On more than a few occasions, Afghan kleptocrats turned to outright theft, for instance in the Kabul Bank case, in which nearly a billion dollars was taken from the bank and funneled offshore. While money flowed upwards, the higher echelons protected their underlings. Chayes describes Afghan President Hamid Karzai personally intervening to stymie the prosecution of even low-level officials for corruption.

The Afghan people, at the very bottom of this pyramid sent money upwards, receiving little in return. Frustrated, with no recourse or mode of appeal, they increasingly turned to religious extremism.

Chayes AFG Corruption
Afghan government corruption. Credit: Sarah Chayes. (click to enlarge)

Westerners operating in the developing world engage fixers. From NGOs hiring a local facilitator to the United States supporting an autocrat, the fundamental principle is the same. The Westerners, not knowing how a society really functions, rely on a local liaison that can get things done. All too often, this fixer will use their role as interlocutor to obtain wealth.

Afghanistan was no different. The United States and international community played a critical part in facilitating this vast network of theft and corruption. Foreign governments provided legitimacy to Karzai’s regime. Foreign troops provided muscle for Afghanistan’s kleptocrats, securing the regime’s existence (and allowing Karzai and his cronies to focus on extracting wealth). And of course, foreign governments and NGOs were a bottomless source of funds that could be embezzled, re-directed, and otherwise stolen.

This is where corruption becomes an international security problem. The Afghan people were aware that the United States and its allies were supporting the Karzai government and assumed that foreigners were fully complicit in and responsible for its depredations. Hatred for their government became hatred for the United States. This, Chayes found, was an international phenomenon.

Chayes expands her investigation of kleptocracies in time and space. The problem is hardly new. As a graduate student studying medieval Islamic history, Chayes encountered the literature known as “Mirrors for Princes,” books of advice for rulers written by statesmen and courtiers. One theme consistently emerges: the need for rulers to be just — that is ensure that all are protected in their lives and property by the law, lest their people turn on them. Hardheaded Machiavelli was particularly forceful on this point, arguing that a prince can avoid being hated, “…if he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects, and from their women…. For men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”

Corruption, enormous financial benefits for a select few at the expense of the many, offends something deep in human nature. Chayes studied the Protestant Reformation as a revolt against a Catholic kleptocracy and the Dutch and English revolutions which established the principles of liberal democracy. There she found an alternative to the Mirrors for Princes, which rested their hopes for justice on the monarch’s character, but she was also struck by how anger at corruption can mutate into extremist religious violence.

Chayes visited other countries ruled by kleptocrats, where she found variations of the structures she had seen in Afghanistan. In the Middle East she visits Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, all roiled by the Arab spring. In Egypt, she outlines the well-established military kleptocracy and the relatively new civilian kleptocracy that emerged with the economic reforms of the 1990s. In Tunisia, banks were forced to make massive loans to members of the ruling elite, loans, which the recipients would never repay and fueled excess among the Tunisian ruling family. In Nigeria, state-sanctioned theft of oil revenues proceeds on a massive scale and “godfathers” fund candidates for office with the expectation of a share of the take when their candidates win. In Uzbekistan, a huge portion of the population is forced to work in the cotton fields, without pay, during harvest in order to provide cotton for the state consortiums. In each of these countries, Chayes finds that the citizens are subjected to regular petty indignities and forced to pay bribes to the police and for critical services. She also finds religious extremism stirring in each of them. The extremism has not turned violent in each country, but the frustration is palpable and the potential for violence is very real.

So what can be done about corruption?

The United States already possesses a range of potential tools to address corruption. The financial tools used to sanction terrorists could be repurposed to target corruption. Intelligence agencies should systematically study and understand the corruption networks that underpin kleptocracies. Dictators crave international legitimacy through appearances with Western leaders, sales of military equipment, and visas to the West for the children of the ruling elites. These are items the United States and other Western nations can distribute more strategically. Chayes also calls for a better understanding of how Western and international aid policies abet corruption and how they can be better engineered to prevent it. Further, she calls for citizens to act in grassroots campaigns that pressure multinational corporations and governments to oppose corruption.

However, Chayes’ experiences in Afghanistan give some pause regarding the efficacy of these tools. Influencing the leadership of sovereign states with which the United States has a laundry list of priorities can be a Sisyphean project. But in Afghanistan, where the United States deployed tens of thousands of troops and was propping up the government with billions of dollars, leverage certainly existed to shape the behavior of Karzai and his cronies. But this never happened. Chayes found her anti-corruption efforts thwarted at every turn and not only by Karzai and his cronies. When an anti-corruption initiative perturbed a regional governor, General McChrystal chewed out Chayes for straining this important relationship. The CIA sat in on all the anti-corruption meetings, saying nothing, while maneuvering to protect their assets. Later Chayes learned that the CIA had been paying Karzai millions. This illustrates the fundamental challenge of anti-corruption: competing with a range of other policy priorities. In the midst of battling an insurgency, the key decision-makers needed an agreeable Afghan government, arguing that pursuing anti-corruption efforts was effectively opening a two-front war.

Chayes makes the compelling case that this is shortsighted. Tolerating corruption to focus on other security priorities misses the point — that corruption fuels the insecurity.

Chayes has few illusions that these problems have simple solutions. From her time in government she is aware of the enormous challenges and trade-offs facing top decision-makers. However, she argues that corruption is rarely considered as a major cost in these calculations and until it is, the United States will pay a high price. Chayes’ arguments echo those made decades ago when activists sought to place human rights on the foreign policy agenda. This view was criticized as impractical and a distraction from the real business of international affairs. In the decades since, human rights have been on the foreign policy agenda and this has, at least sometimes, made a difference. In Thieves of State, Chayes makes a similar and arguably a more powerful argument that corruption, for reasons of both justice and realpolitik, should at least be on the agenda.


Dr. Aaron Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics where has co-authored two books on terrorism in South Asia. He has written on a range of national security issues for popular and scholarly publications. He can be found on Twitter @awmannes.

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