A Call to Action


The White House Photo / Lawrence Jackson

U.S. attention to corruption in Afghanistan surged in 2009 and 2010 as U.S. officials became increasingly concerned about three issues:

  1. Corruption was fueling the insurgency by financing insurgent groups and reinforcing grievances that led to greater popular support of the groups.
  2. Corruption was undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan state.
  3. The U.S. itself was contributing to corruption through limited oversight of its aid and military contracting, and by partnering with malign powerbrokers.


As a result of these insights, as well as increased numbers of personnel and resources dedicated to Afghanistan, anticorruption became a key element of U.S. activities in the country. U.S. agencies began to develop a more sophisticated understanding of systemic corruption and the threat it posed to the mission. A flurry of strategies for tackling corruption were drafted, and several U.S. and ISAF entities were formed to better understand the nexus of corruption, drugs, crime, and insurgency; to prevent terrorist financing; and to improve oversight of U.S. contracting. The U.S. also stepped up efforts to build Afghan capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. These myriad efforts, however, were not unified by a comprehensive strategy.

President Barack Obama speaking "We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders. Instead, we will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior, and sets clear benchmarks…for international assistance."

President Barack Obama, 2009

The White House Photo / Pete Souza


This surge in awareness and activity came up against the reality of entrenched criminal patronage networks that involved high-level Afghan officials who did not share U.S. objectives. Two major events in 2010—the arrest on corruption charges and prompt release of a key Karzai aide, and the near-collapse of Kabul Bank due to massive fraud by politically connected bank executives—demonstrated that Afghan leaders were not committed to fighting corruption. These events called into question the scope of U.S. leverage over the Afghan government. At the same time, the U.S. sought to maintain access to the Karzai administration to move other important security and political goals forward.


Year World Bank Transparency
2001 -- --
2002 196 of 197 --
2003 195 of 197 --
2004 198 of 206 --
2005 203 of 206 117 of 159
2006 199 of 206 --
2007 205 of 207 172 of 180
2008 205 of 207 176 of 180
2009 208 of 210 179 of 180
2010 209 of 211 176 of 178
2011 209 of 212 180 of 183
2012 206 of 210 174 of 176
2013 206 of 210 175 of 177
2014 196 of 209 172 of 175
2015 -- 166 of 168

Note: The data reflect Afghanistan’s international ranking among select countries. The number of countries included in these rankings changes from year to year based on the availability of reliable data. Rows with "--" indicate no data.

Source: SIGAR analysis of World Bank data; The World Bank, “Worldwide Governance Indicators: Control of Corruption,” The World Bank Databank, 2002–2014; Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index,” 2005, 2007–2015.


Corruption presented the U.S. with a profound dilemma. The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy rested on building a credible Afghan government, able to protect and deliver services to its citizens. However, corruption eroded not only the state’s legitimacy, but its very capacity to function. And any successful, sustainable fight against corruption needed the full participation—and ideally, leadership—of the Afghan government.

U.S. soldiers with a villager at a well
The U.S. Army Photo / SrA Rylan K. Albright

U.S. officials grappling with corruption thus had to consider:

  1. How much political capital should the U.S. invest in pressuring Afghan leaders for reform, while maintaining access to the Karzai administration?
  2. How should the U.S. pragmatically invest in anticorruption efforts when leaders within the Afghan government were actively undermining those efforts?
  3. How could the U.S. best leverage other tools to make progress against corruption?

These dilemmas would shape the U.S. experience in countering corruption in the 2010 to 2014 period.

Part 1

Part 3