1st Marine Division Photo / Cpl Reece Lodder

In the wake of the Salehi arrest and Kabul Bank scandal, there was greater U.S. appreciation of the extent of corruption, the threat it posed, and the absence of Afghan political commitment to address it. At the same time, the U.S. was focused on high-level priorities that required political cooperation from the Karzai government: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, securing a strategic partnership agreement and bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government, and exploring reconciliation with the Taliban. There was U.S. concern that pushing too hard on corruption issues might alienate Karzai and jeopardize his cooperation on security and political goals.


In this time period, a variety of reports highlighted the same theme: Poor oversight of civilian and military procurement and contracting processes was allowing massive corruption to occur, undermining the entire mission and resulting in significant losses of U.S. government funds. The final report of the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other reports, stressed the risks of spending too much money too quickly, and overwhelming a country’s absorptive capacity.

Note: The aid saturation point is the theoretical point at which a state has reached its capacity for absorbing aid. Aid provided beyond that point may be counterproductive. The green line shows U.S. reconstruction funding as a percentage of Afghan GDP over time. The gray area reflects the generally accepted range of aid saturation, typically 15 to 45% of GDP. | Source


Even as the Afghan government resisted U.S. efforts to combat corruption, the U.S. supported institutional reform and capacity building, pressed for judicial actions and better financial oversight, and strengthened civil society organizations and the media. DOD and USAID vetted contractors and, along with State, implemented contracting guidance to reduce opportunities for corruption. These efforts had some success. For example, vendor vetting efforts likely prevented at least some U.S. funds from reaching insurgent groups via corrupt networks. Overall, however, anticorruption activities were largely tactical; they were not unified by an overarching strategy or backed by sustained U.S. political commitment.

A USAID worker and interpreter in the field
U.S. Air Force Photo / 2nd Lt Christine Darius


The U.S. government underestimated the leverage it had over the Afghan government and politically connected individuals. While the lack of Afghan cooperation on anticorruption stymied many U.S. efforts, the U.S. might have more aggressively brought pressure to bear by conditioning security and development assistance on tangible progress. U.S. agencies might have developed a strategy for increasing the costs for Afghan political leaders to support a corrupt system, including revoking visas of corrupt officials and their families; pursuing more robust U.S. law enforcement actions against corrupt Afghans with dual U.S. citizenship; and making seizures in the U.S. of the proceeds of corruption.

General John Allen "Acknowledging that the United States and the West bear some responsibility for the state of corruption in Afghanistan, the great challenge to Afghanistan’s future is not the Taliban or Pakistani safe havens or even an incipiently hostile Pakistan. The existential threat to the long-term viability of modern Afghanistan is corruption."

General John Allen, 2014

U.S. Air Force Photo / Staff Sgt Jeff Nevison

The U.S. failure to fully employ these tools suggests U.S. officials believed that using them carried too high a risk of jeopardizing more direct security and counterterrorism objectives. These judgment calls reflected the primary U.S. policy objective in Afghanistan: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan. The core problem was that corruption continued to pose a security threat in its own right and threatened U.S. security and stability goals. If the U.S. had devoted more resources earlier on to understanding systemic corruption, it might have recognized the threat before corrupt networks became entrenched and much harder to tackle.

Part 2