Skip to content
bulb, corruption, Afghanistan

Corruption is the Epicenter of Afghanistan’s Nightmare

Afghanistan’s instability is rooted in its deep corruption.

Words: Frank Vogl
Pictures: Thomas M. Evans

For almost two decades the citizens of Afghanistan may well have believed that American and allied forces in their country could establish conditions corresponding to Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Afghans did not just rely upon foreigners to attain better lives for themselves. At least 66,000 Afghan soldiers died during the war. A conservative estimate by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggests that at a minimum 48,000 Afghan civilians were killed, and at least 75,000 were injured since 2001.

In reaction to the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration sought to destroy terrorists and those that aided terrorists in Afghanistan. The mission was achieved rapidly. The follow-up mission was to ensure that Afghanistan remained free of terrorists that could attack the US homeland. According to SIGAR, in addition to thousands of dead, and even more injured Afghans, this mission saw 2,443 American soldiers die in action and 20,666 US troops injured. It points out that the US spent $837 billion on warfighting, and a further $145 billion on reconstruction and development, including building Afghan security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. These latter efforts were supplemented by billions more dollars from development aid agencies. For example, since 2002, more than $12 billion has been used to finance development projects and the government’s budget through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund that has been managed by the World Bank on behalf of 34 official bilateral and multilateral donors. 

So, what happened? 


Gradually the US mission expanded to evolve many elements of nation-building, although this was never fully acknowledged by US presidents. US administrations have long sought to avoid expressly tying US foreign engagements — be they those in conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or to dozens of countries through USAID — to nation-building. The term “nation-building,” however, has been seen as committing to a multi-year costly engagement that is difficult to sell to the American people. Accordingly, in the case of Afghanistan, the gradual widening of US engagement, from purely military activities, to direct involvement in many aspects of the government, to elections, to developing schools and other social services, was always explained in terms of reconstruction and adding to the security of the country.

It is important to acknowledge that those who sacrificed their lives did not die in vain. They contributed to providing many Afghans with hope for a brighter future for themselves and their children. For example, according SIGAR’s August 2021 report:  

“By 2018, life expectancy had jumped from 56 to 65, a 16 percent increase. Between 2000 and 2019, the mortality rate of children under five plummeted by more than 50 percent. Between 2001 and 2019, Afghanistan’s human development index increased 45 percent. Between 2002 and 2019, Afghanistan’s GDP per capita nearly doubled, and overall GDP nearly tripled, even accounting for inflation. Between 2005 and 2017, literacy among 15- to 24-year-olds increased by 28 percentage points among males and 19 points among females, primarily driven by increases in rural areas.”

At a minimum, a nation-building strategy in a very poor country emerging from conflict needs to include: Ensuring the personal safety of citizens; creating social safety nets and basic income-generating opportunities; establishing citizen rights under the law; and building citizen confidence and trust in government. Critical to progress on these fronts are the development of governmental institutions that ensure that the actions of those in power are transparent, that these officials and politicians are accountable to the citizens, and that nobody is above the law. Success, over time in nation-building, requires institutions and practices of justice and law enforcement that citizens view as honest and that treat all, from the poorest to the nation’s leaders, as equal before the law. In other words, nation-building is a painfully slow and complicated process that has no guarantees, and is all the harder when pursued by a foreign occupier when conflict is ever-present, as the US found in Afghanistan. 

In Afghanistan, the US assigned highest priority to security and despite massive troop deployment and expenditures, its success declined as the years passed. The Taliban and organized crime groups gathered in strength and became increasingly present in Afghanistan due to a considerable degree to the consistent support from Pakistan’s military and it’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While the White House repeatedly confronted Pakistani authorities about their support to the Taliban, and even urged Pakistan to use its leverage to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan insisted that it’s relationship with the Taliban was weak and that they did not have any kind of control over the group. This back-and-forth, especially over the last five years, has created fissures in the US–Pakistan relationship that negatively impacted the US mission in Afghanistan. Journalists Carlotta Gall and Steve Coll both do an excellent job explaining this complex dynamic, and highlight the Pakistani authorities’ ability to run rings around US military leaders and diplomats alike.

From bases in Pakistan, organized crime groups, especially closely aligned to the Taliban and in league with many Afghan regional officials, greatly expanded opium production in the country. Organized crime and government corruption so often go hand-in-hand, and Afghanistan is no exception. In its August 2021 report to Congress, SIGAR noted: “The US government has spent nearly $9 billion on counter-narcotics efforts since 2002, in part due to concerns that narcotics trafficking funded Taliban activities. Despite the investment, the cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan has trended upward for two decades.”  

As the years rolled by, as scholar Sarah Chayes has so well described in her 2015 book, “Thieves of State – Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” Afghans at every level were subject to extortion on a daily basis. There was no trust in the judiciary. The police were bribed. Graft defined the regional and national systems of government. The failures of the justice system at every level added to insecurity and undermined efforts by President Ashraf Ghani to build public confidence in the central government.


The scandal is that every US and allied leader — political, diplomatic, and military — knew this, yet failed to confront the problem with sufficient priority. Reporting by foreign correspondents from Afghanistan, studies by experts, mountains of books, not to mention official government reports, all highlighted the rising levels of corruption.

For example, in August 2009, reporter Elizabeth Rubin interviewed Ashraf Ghani, one of then-President Hamid Karzai’s political opponents, who said: “I judge a president by his record and his company. We ranked 117 on Transparency International (the Corruption Perceptions Index of 180 countries) in 2005. Now we rank 176, the fifth most corrupt country on earth. It happened on his watch.” Ghani came in fourth in that year’s elections but was eventually elected president in 2014. A 2010 State Department cable from Kabul reported Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Spanta as saying that “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance.” Afghanistan’s corruption, therefore, was not a secret. 


Ghani came into power in 2014 determined to counter corruption. He wanted help form civil society and invited Transparency International (TI) to a meeting in Kabul. TI is the largest global anti-corruption organization represented in over 100 countries, which I co-founded in 1993. While I had never visited the country, it fell to me to convene a TI working group to plan for the meeting. I engaged colleagues from a range of countries who all had extensive experience in Afghanistan.

The scandal is that every US and allied leader — political, diplomatic, and military — knew how pervasive corruption was in Afghanistan, yet failed to confront the problem with sufficient priority.

Our working group members stressed that there were many Afghans in the armed forces, government, business, and civil society who were determined to counter corruption and needed far greater foreign support. We concluded that we would recommend to President Ghani that the immediate actions he should launch in Kabul include: Establishing an anti-corruption commission with prosecutorial power; promoting public declarations of assets; establishing a public procurement committee; pushing for anti-corruption reforms in customs and revenue systems; and develop/strengthen conflict of interest regime for all public officials.

President Ghani hosted a meeting of representatives of several anti-corruption civil society organizations in his office, including Global Witness, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, and TI. In that meeting, he made it clear that he already knew what had to be done and he berated civil society for not giving him enough public support. The TI set of recommendations that had been prepared was never given a full hearing. We received a better hearing in London and in Washington, but I doubt our proposals and our warnings reached high enough levels. However, thanks to the efforts of my TI colleagues, to Sarah Chayes and to many others, there was increasing US military leadership understanding that basic security in the country demanded a major assault on corruption and that building trust in the institutions of justice was vital to the nation’s security. 

Generals candidly talked about the corruption issues before Congressional panels. For example, back in 2011, Admiral Michael Mullen, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told US Senate’s Armed Services Committee in a public hearing: 

“If we continue to draw down forces apace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked, we will risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith. At best this would lead to continued localized conflicts as neighborhood strongmen angle for their cut, and the people for their survival; at worst it could lead to government collapse and civil war.”

After all, how could you ask Afghans to risk their lives in combat for a nation run by politicians, other officials, and military leaders who overwhelmingly abused their positions to enrich themselves at the direct expense of the people they were in public office to support?

Nevertheless, there was never sufficient support for the anti-corruption programs by either Afghan or foreign leaders. Public trust by Afghans in their government was never obtained meaningfully. The massive US reconstruction aid, according to SIGAR reports, was far beyond the absorptive capacity of the country. SIGAR has repeatedly documented in public reports how the funds were often disbursed so swiftly without adequate accountability that they added significantly to the already very high levels of corruption.


Shame on all our US and allied political, diplomatic, and military leaders who over so many years were responsible for adding to corruption in Afghanistan. Shame on them for not listening to all the critics and for not reading all the expert reports that highlighted how US strategies failed to build public trust in government and in the institutions of justice. 

These arrogant high officials repeatedly underestimated how the increasing levels of corruption and organized crime were bound to undermine the Ghani government, trust in Afghan generals, and American leadership. Now, the citizens of Afghanistan are left to Taliban terror.

Frank Vogl is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and teaches a graduate seminar on “Corruption, Conflict Resolution and Security.” He is the co-founder of the leading global organization fighting corruption, Transparency International and the chairman of Partnership for Transparency Fund. His book, The Enablers: How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption – Endangering Our Democracy is forthcoming in November 2021.

Frank Vogl

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.