Lessons to be learned from (not) addressing corruption in Afghanistan

Jean-Pierre Méan

By Jean-Pierre Méan

Published on Tuesday August 31, 2021  


The recent events in Afghanistan brought back to my mind a discussion that I had with a member of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the aftermath of the then successful US intervention in 2001.

Far from being encouraged in its endeavors to promote the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in Afghanistan, UNODC was told at the time that combating corruption was not the order of the day. The thinking was that there were other priorities and that fighting corruption would have to wait until more pressing problems were solved. In the meantime it was essential to secure the cooperation and loyalty of groups of Afghan society including politicians, War Lords and opium producers. And if that meant tolerating or even encouraging corrupt practices, so be it.

UNODC was ultimately successful in having Afghanistan join UNCAC in 2008 but progress in implementing the Convention has been slow and has had little or no operational impact. A review report published in 2016 still identifies a long list of challenges that remained to be addressed.

What happened in the field during the twenty years of presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan is on the record. From a very low base in 2001, the production of poppies grew  to the point that Afghanistan is now the source of 90% of heroin worldwide; the assistance of War Lords in securing logistic routes of US supplies was bought with large sums of money ( which they appear to have sometime passed on to the taliban to keep them from attacking certain convoys); and politicians were amply rewarded for their cooperation with huge amounts of cash delivered right to their office and used  to buy luxurious properties in the UAE . The Kabul bank, a systemic bank critically important to Afghanistan, went bankrupt against a background of fraudulent lending, fraud, money laundering and corruption in which the brother of President Hamid Karzai was involved.

In 2005, the first time Afghanistan was included in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, It ranked 117th from 159 countries, ahead from Russia. From 2007 to 2020 , it ranked systematically among the 12 most corrupt of some 180 countries, in a group that includes Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, North Korea, Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Venezuela, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia.

At the end of the day, a substantial amount of aid ended up contributing to the enrichment of a few. According to an analysis of 3000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion, “about 40 % of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials” ( The Afghanistan Papers : A Secret History of the War , by Craig Whitlock and the Washington Post). It is permitted to believe that corruption also affected to some extent the balance of the hundreds of billions spent over the years.

Corruption is a crime that necessitates two perpetrators, the corrupted and the corruptor. A single individual can defraud an organization or extort money from it in a single or a few instances. This is fraud or extortion and not corruption. But this cannot happen for a large amount of transactions (such as over 3000) or over a long period of time (such as 20 years) without it being noticed. Even turning a blind eye has limitations.

If this amount of corruption was noticed and permitted to continue, it must have been tolerated, if not condoned, as helpful in stabilizing the country and as part of the state-building strategy.

In fact, not only did corruption not help but it made it impossible to reach these goals. Politicians and the political system lost all credibility. Decisions were made not according to their merits but according to the personal gains that they could bring to those involved. The whole country turned into a huge Potemkin village with all developments dressed up in a way that would encourage more funds to be disbursed and misappropriated.

This should serve as a lesson that fighting corruption is not the cherry to put on the cake when everything else has been dealt with. It is rather the foundation on which to build a solid and lasting structure. It is necessary in order to steer efforts on the common good and to prevent those efforts from being highjacked in the interest of a few power brokers.

The further lesson to be learned from this particular aspect of the war conducted in Afghanistan is that not money but integrity and transparency are the ingredients to efficiently combat the corrosive effects of corruption and that these values must be carried by effective and demonstrated leadership, something that has dramatically failed in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the shameful flight of the Afghan President to take refuge in the UAE where he will no doubt enjoy a better life than the one that is expecting those who had no other choice than staying behind.  



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