Addressing an Ignored Imperative: Rural Corruption in Afghanistan

Abstract: This paper takes an economic approach to understanding the nature of rural corruption in Afghanistan and develops a working model of rural corruption based on available information about the prevalence of corruption. This model is able to explain recent changes in Afghans’ perception of corruption and suggests that some of the conventional wisdom about corruption in Afghanistan is misguided. Current International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) anti-corruption efforts do not focus on rural corruption, which should be the focus of ISAF’s anti-corruption strategies because it has important implications for the war effort. Continuing to only indirectly address the issue carries grave risks for the future of the Afghan state. The model presented in this paper also provides some insight into how ISAF should attempt to solve the problems of rural corruption. Further study could allow ISAF to find a way to manipulate the market for Afghan public services in order to limit the disastrous negative effects of rural Afghan corruption, but only if ISAF is willing to alter the organization of the anti-corruption effort to ensure a focus on rural corruption and change some of its normative beliefs about corruption.

The Economic Nature of Bribes

One morning in early 2012 in Paktika Province, a kucchi goat herder tapped into the underground karez that supplied a village a few kilometers away with water. Within a few days, Noorullah, the elder of the affected village, could tell that the kucchi was using his water from extra silt that flowed down the karez into his village. Noorullah went to the nearby kucchi camp and tried bargaining with the kucchi to avoid conflict. He offered to let the kucchi use the water supply in exchange for one goat each month to offset the expense of cleaning damage to the karez from the kucchi’s use of it. The kucchi agreed. The month after the kucchi still used the karez, but delivered no goat to the village. Noorullah spoke to the kucchi a second time, and the kucchi promised to pay a second time. The month after that, again, the kucchi used the karez, and again there was no goat.

Noorullah then travelled to a nearby small town to ask the local police chief, Bowri, for help settling his dispute with the kucchi. Bowri was a respected man. He had been appointed by his third cousin, an appointee of one of Hamid Karzai’s brother’s appointee’s appointee. “I will need 7,000 Afghani to cover my expenses in covering your dispute,” Bowri said when Noorullah asked him for help. He was asking for baksheesh, the Pastho word for a bribe.

7,000 Afghani! Noorullah was shocked. He was a poor farmer. Afghans in some regions make as much as 40,000 Afghani in a year, but he rarely saw 100 Afghani at once. He surely did not have 7,000 Afghani to spend on his dispute. Noorullah tried to negotiate, but Bowri was adamant. If Bowri reduced his price for one man, he would have to reduce his price for everyone. And if he did that, how could Bowri make a living? The government barely paid him! After two afternoons, Noorullah headed home deeply worried about the health of his village’s water supply. He wondered to himself as he walked down a mountain trail to return home: “How can they ask for so much?!” For poor Noorullah, the government was causing more harm than good.

Although Noorullah and his situation are contrived, rural Afghans face situations like Noorullah’s every day across Afghanistan; they more often than not find that corruption is an insurmountable barrier to attaining public services, just as Noorullah did when seeking arbitration services from Bowri. Noorullah represents the typical Afghan farmer. The overwhelming majority (85%) of Afghans work in agriculture or a directly related industry, and most Afghans are subsistence farmers.[1] If the key terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain, Noorullah and those like him are the high ground. In a 2010 survey sponsored by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 59% of Afghans like Noorullah indicated that public dishonesty was a greater concern for them than insecurity or unemployment.[2]

In a functioning state, governments levy taxes in to order provide public services. This is not the case in Afghanistan. The Afghan central government is unable to collect enough tax revenues to fund its own operations.[3] Without any other sources of funds, foreign donors, in addition to billions in foreign aid Afghanistan receives each year, contribute 70% of the central government’s operating budget.[4] Thus, the government provides services, but those services are not primarily provided for by taxation.

Due largely to the lack of tax revenue, public services are not free, as Noorullah learned. Corruption is so common in Afghanistan that no public service lacks a price tag. In fact, “Afghans say that it is impossible to obtain a public service without paying a bribe.”[5] This is especially true in rural areas, where government officials in isolated posts have little or no effective oversight.[6] After a decade of becoming accustomed to an economy in which the sum total of bribes paid is equivalent to one-fourth of licit GDP, Afghans have come to accept the current scheme of corruption as an economic reality.[7]  Even among urban Afghans, who have greater access to reporting mechanisms than rural Afghans do, only 9% have ever reported an act of corruption to authorities.[8] Many of these reports are lost or ignored. The Afghan Central Statistics Office found only 23 instances of bribery in crime data collected from the Ministry of Interior Affairs for the entire fiscal year 2009.[9]

The universality of corruption in rural Afghanistan lets us analyze Afghan corruption in a unique way. When public services and bribes are inseparable, bribes become the price of public services. Noorullah and his fellow farmers become “customers” of the Government of the Islamic Republican of Afghanistan (GIRoA). GIRoA officials set themselves up as the “suppliers” of public services (see Figure 1). The amount of a bribe is no longer an arbitrary or culturally determined amount; instead, it is the economic value of a public service on the Afghan market. The level and nature of corruption is determined by the invisible hand of the market, in which Noorullah’s desire for public services is tempered by Bowri’s desire to make as much money as he can. A simple supply-and-demand model of corruption allows us to understand why Noorullah and countless other Afghans are abandoned by GIRoA.

Bowri enjoys a monopoly over the provision of arbitration services in his region. He has no viable competitors, and can effectively demand whatever price he wants. The Taliban attempts to offer an alternative, but for a variety of reasons (discussed later), many Afghans prefer his GIRoA arbitration services to the Taliban. The International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) also provide some arbitration services in Noorullah’s district, but their long-term objective is for the Afghan government to provide these services, and they work hard to ensure that government officials maintain their monopolistic control.

Poor Norullah finds himself in an awful situation because his “government” is a monopoly with a profit motive. The way monopolies with profit motives behave is well established in economic literature. In order to maximize profits, monopolies provide fewer services that customers demand and charge higher prices for those services. Asking for excessively high prices drives off too many customers, and asking for excessively low prices makes the monopoly work harder than is economically necessary to meet demand. Somewhere in the middle is the “right” price for the monopoly to ask—and in the market for Afghan public services, just like in any other market dominated by a monopoly, that price is far too high for most people to afford and keeps most people out of the market.

The GIRoA monopoly clearly provides fewer services than their citizen-customers demand. A quarter of Afghan people pay bribes and more than a third go without desired public services because they cannot afford bribe prices. After years of talk of “rampant corruption” in Afghanistan, it is easy for us to imagine that Noorullah’s case is atypical. Foreigners often assume that most Afghans pay bribes regularly. However, since 2001the opposite has generally been true. Far more Afghans are too poor to afford bribe prices than actually pay them. A paltry 25% of rural Afghans paid a bribe in 2010 according to UNODC.[10] A 2010 survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan similarly found that only 28% of households paid bribes in 2010, and 78% of those households were in rural areas.[11] ISAF Human Terrain System (HTS) interviews in 2011 also found that only 24% of Afghans state that someone in their household personally experienced corruption in the past year.[12] This is not because three-quarters of Afghans do not demand government public services. The same HTS interviews clearly indicated that in 2011 38% of Afghans went without basic goods or services because they could not afford to pay a bribe for that good or service, just like Noorullah.[13] This data clearly indicates that many Afghans who are otherwise able to attain public services, having overcome geographic and other hurdles, are prevented from doing so solely by the bribe-price.

The GIRoA monopoly also clearly charges very high prices for the services they do provide. The average price of a bribe in 2010 was US$160, roughly equivalent to the 7,000 Afghanis Bowri demanded of Noorullah.[14] This price is unattainable to most rural Afghans just like it was to Noorullah. Rural Afghans on average make somewhat less than Afghan Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which is US$900, or about 43,000 Afghanis a year.[15] Although Noorullah is clearly hurt by Bowri’s high prices, the price makes sense for Bowri as it allows him to make as much money as possible from his monopoly. In many cases, Afghans pay bribes in non-cash forms, such as livestock. Yet even when the bribe comes in another form, Bowri’s monopolistic power induces him to overcharge Noorullah.

Departing from the example of Noorullah’s need for arbitration services, we can take a broader look at the effects of the gross inefficiency the Afghan market for public services. Availability and demand determine the public services that government officials provide. Afghanistan is a weak state at best and a failing state in many ways, but this only reinforces the importance of a government that can provide basic security and arbitration services. These represent the minimums of governance. HTS interviews conducted in the summer of 2011 found that majorities of Afghans stated that corruption is most common when they seek to resolve a civil or criminal court case (69% and 64%) and when they use police services (57%).[16] Thus, security and arbitration services are what matter to rural Afghans like Noorullah. In the most distant regions, police chiefs often provide both security and arbitration services because there are no judges.

Decades of conflict have damaged traditional Afghan power structures, making the state even more important. While Noorullah might once have turned to his tribal elders to arbitrate disputes and organize local security, Afghanistan has been at war nearly continuously since 1979. Old social structures have become much less relevant than they once were. The powerful socio-political actors that once ran the state and made the central government a non-actor, especially in the south, have decayed. Even the “khans” who once concerted agricultural surplus into social surplus through patronage are also much less powerful than they once were because of the modernization of Afghan agriculture.[17]

There is little equivalence between older power structures and the new structures established by GIRoA to complement or replace them. Traditional power structures focused on maintaining the socioeconomic status quo, which gave rural Afghans power and independence. The current inefficient market for public services, meanwhile, skews the distribution of wealth and power in Afghanistan in favor of the government-affiliated elite. Rural Afghans get comparatively poorer and less able to purchase government services as they pay bribes, while those in power get comparatively wealthier and expand their ability to influence the rest of the government. Historic data on rural Afghan perceptions of corruption also shows that consumers of public services are hurt more by shifts in market factors than corrupt officials. There have been various vox populi opinions of corruption’s effects since 2001, but the wealth of public officials has consistently grown except when ISAF has directly interfered with the officials’ efforts to line their pockets.[18] The relationship between public opinion and wealth transfer allows us to infer that the price elasticity of demand for bribes is less than the price elasticity of supply. Put simply, rural Afghans are relatively less able to stop demanding public services than government officials are able to stop providing them. When the government is able to stop providing public services, economic necessity forces rural Afghans to continue to utilize the artificially scarcer – and thus more expensive – services. Thus, as the market becomes more inefficient, the rate of transfer of wealth from rural Afghans to government officials increases. The problem gets exponentially worse.

The model of rural corruption described above can help us explain past shifts in Afghan perceptions of corruption. In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal introduced a “population-centric COIN” strategy that moved ISAF troops into “key districts” that contain “a meaningful proportion of the Afghan population” after taking over as commanding general of ISAF (COMISAF).[19] His successors General David Petraeus and more recently General John Allen continued this strategy. Population-centric COIN moved more ISAF troops, who provide the security that enables ISAF and NGOs to provide public services, out of rural areas.[20] The removal of ISAF troops decreased the supply of substitute public services as ISAF governance cells and NGOs left insecure rural areas, thus increasing the ability of government officials to act like a monopoly in the market for bribes and public services. While ISAF-trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) become increasingly effective at providing security, international aid groups overwhelmingly focus their efforts in areas secured by ISAF troops due to the perception of ISAF-secured areas as more reliable and more important to the counterinsurgency effort.[21] This paper’s model of the market for Afghan public services would predict that with their increasing monopolistic power, corrupt officials would demand higher bribe prices that are more unattainable to rural Afghans until they reach a point of maximum profit (see Figure 2). This is exactly what has happened. Afghans have become isolated from GIRoA; perhaps as a result, the proportion of Afghans who believed their country was headed in the wrong direction because of corruption increased from 17% to 27% between 2009 and 2011.[22]

The latest numbers from Afghanistan verify the monopolistic model of Afghan corruption. UNODC’s 2012 corruption survey found a slight increase in the number of bribes paid, but suggested this trend resulted from the expansion of GIRoA’s repertoire of profitable public services (notably in education, healthcare, utilities and recruitment for government jobs).[23] Nothing suggests that basic public services provision in rural areas has changed substantially, with corruption in the judiciary and among local authorities remaining constant.[24] UNODC interprets their findings as showing moderate progress against corruption, but the opposite may be true. As they note, Afghan “perceptions of corruption have not improved significantly” since 2009.[25] Meanwhile, Afghan tolerance of corruption (which is, to an extent, a measure of fatalism) has gone up somewhat.[26] Afghans think corruption is increasing because its impact on them has increased, even if it has not in quantitative terms.[27] This theoretical tolerance and practical anger arises overwhelmingly from the problematic behavior of GIRoA as a monopoly. The survey found a substantial (roughly 40%) increase in the real cost of corruption since 2009.[28] UNODC also found an inverse relationship between the prevalence of bribery and the average number of bribes paid.[29] That fewer people are paying more bribes suggests that fewer, wealthier citizens are able to access public services, as the monopolistic model predicts. Urban Afghans seem to be paying more, smaller bribes, while rural Afghans are paying fewer, larger ones[30] – that is, rural Afghans are increasingly shut out of the market by their poverty. The survey clearly found that citizens with lower incomes are much less likely to turn down request for bribes.[31] Afghans with the least access to the alternatives to GIRoA public services provided by the Taliban and NGOs – those outside of the Taliban’s Pashtun heartland[32] and rural Afghans isolated from ISAF and NGO alternatives[33] – are the most likely to be preyed upon by government officials with demands for bribes. This is clear evidence that monopolistic behavior is the root of the problem.

Pure economic analysis is not enough to understand why Afghans feel so abandoned by GIRoA; their perception of corruption matters as well.[34] Unfortunately, many scholars misunderstand Afghan corruption. In the words of one analyst affirming a commonly-held opinion: “Afghans’ anger about corruption does not stem from personally paying bribes, but from the less direct perception that their government is corrupt and incompetent.”[35] Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. As an economic analysis and survey information indicates, corruption is not primarily a perceptual problem, but an economic problem with social and political ramifications. Rural Afghans’ anger does not stem from paying bribes or from the perception of having to pay bribes—their anger stems from the failure of the corruption market. They are unable to participate in the market for public services because of excessive prices, and are effectively abandoned by GIRoA. Their social and economic opportunities are severely limited, creating despair and misery. This is far worse than a simple perceptual problem.

Corruption and the Taliban Insurgency

On the way back to his village, Noorullah passed by the local Taliban commander, Israel, riding on a motorcycle with an alligator seat along with two of his comrades. Noorullah did not speak to them, and they did not seem like they wanted to be spoken to as they rushed by. When the Taliban alone governed Afghanistan, its members had taken several of Noorullah’s cousins to Pakistan to become mujahedeen, and he had never seen them again. Even so, the Taliban had governed the country where the new government only seemed to exploit people. “I did not like them,” thought Noorullah, “but at least they understood the plight of poor men like me and do not ask for money.”

The next day, the motorcycle with the alligator seat parked outside of Noorullah’s small house. Israel had heard of Noorullah’s problem with the kucchi. Israel offered to ensure the kucchi paid Noorullah the promised goats. “I do not ask for anything in return,” Israel said, “only for your respect and loyalty in the future.” Noorullah agreed to let the Taliban arbitrate his dispute. After all, Bowri wasn’t going to do anything about it.

The Taliban originally formed in and around Kandahar in the mid-1990s and slowly spread from there to take control of much of post-communist Afghanistan. The Afghan people of the time were desperate for basic governance — essential security and arbitration services — and to get on with their lives. The Taliban’s ability to provide basic governance was just as important as foreign support and military ability to their successful campaign to take control of much of the country. Taliban governance was barbaric, and was not popular with many Afghans. However, the religious conviction that fired the Taliban movement ensured that their local governance was brutally honest. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was not a notably corrupt state.[36]

In 2001, the American-supported Northern Alliance and other forces toppled the Taliban government. The new government did not adopt the corruption policies of its predecessors. A decade after “taking power,” GIRoA has failed to provide the basics of local governance in most of Afghanistan. The profit-motivated monopolies its leaders have established in many regions, as discussed in the first section of this paper, are at best pseudo-governments. The culture of corruption has contributed to the Taliban insurgency more than any single action of GIRoA or ISAF.

The Taliban “shadow government” that exists in much of Afghanistan is effectively a competitor to the government in the market for public services. Their sharia-based courts and tens of thousands of fighters offer alternative security and arbitration services. [37] These services are substantially less corrupt than government services. The Taliban has effective mechanisms for removing corrupt officials and has little tolerance for them. The semi-formal structure of the Taliban movement leads to many exceptions to any rule, but corruption among Taliban officials is definitely much rarer than among government officials.[38] In 2011 HTS interviews, a plurality (19%) of Afghans stated the Taliban mostly extort money from development projects, while few said the Taliban engaged in the sort of exploitative corruption that is common among government officials.[39] The Taliban’s level of corruption not only compares favorable with GIRoA’s, it is comparable to ISAF’s; the 2012 UNODC survey found that nearly as many Afghan bribe-payers paid money to ISAF (16%) as the Taliban (20%).[40]

The Taliban demand very different payments than the Afghan government. The Afghan government’s foreign benefactors allow it to operate largely without taxation, so the only “payment” it demands is in the form of informal corruption by government officials. Meanwhile, the payments that the Taliban receives for substitute public services are its major source of funding.[41] The Taliban “taxes” the population in a variety of ways. Poor rural Afghans who are willing to accept Taliban rule support the Taliban with fighters and resources. About half of payments to the Taliban come in the form of poppy products, which is more attainable to rural Afghans than other goods government officials demand, especially cash. In many ways, the Taliban — by collecting taxes to fund expenditures — looks more like a government than GIRoA; while GIRoA maintains legal sovereignty, its relationship with the Afghan people is much more predatory.

Given the failure of the government to provide public services, Taliban-provided public services are a popular alternative to government-provided services, and additionally help to break the monopolistic power of government officials. There is immense variation in the popularity of the Taliban alternative across Afghanistan, shaped by ethnicity, religion, trade and other factors. In some districts, the monopoly has been broken and the government monopolists pushed out. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Organization, in roughly 13% of Afghan districts the GIRoA legal system has all but disappeared, sinking into corrupt irrelevance.[42]

The few relative blessings of the system established by the central government are all that allow them to continue to function. Despite their problems, the services provided by the government are more popular than the public services provided by the Taliban. Economically motivated monopolies like the government respond to demand, but the Taliban does not. The Taliban can effectively provide a handful of public services, but their repertoire is limited (if well-suited to current demand). This is not only because they are a fighting insurgency. Even when they were the unchallenged government in many regions in the 1990s, they still based their governance on the Koran rather than on demand. According to 2011 HTS interviews, in 2011 86% of Afghans believed the Taliban were ineffective at providing the public services the people want.[43] Moreover, the Taliban are extremists. Their public services remain unpopular because of their willingness to infringe on personal freedoms, their treatment of women, and their responsibility for the majority of civilian casualties in a decade of ongoing conflict.[44] Where popular support for the Taliban is strong, especially in the Pashtun south, many Afghans cooperate with the Taliban because they desire their form of governance. In other regions, however, many of those who cooperate with the Taliban do so only begrudgingly, and for primarily economic reasons. When government public services are unattainable because of corruption, the Taliban wins more easily.

Responses to Corruption

Experiences like Noorullahs’ build opposition to the Afghan National Government, and as long as they are everyday occurrences, ISAF is unlikely to build a viable Afghan state that can sustain itself after foreign troops return home. ISAF recognizes that corruption affects the daily lives of most Afghans, prevents the Afghan government from connecting with the people, and remains a key reason for Afghans’ support of the insurgency.[45] Curiously, however, ISAF seems to pay little attention to the plight of rural Afghans like Noorullah, instead focusing on other corruption problems.

Commanders in Afghanistan recognize the enormity of the corruption problem. In August of 2010, newly appointed COMISAF General David Petraeus released his counter-insurgency guidance to ISAF. The document emphasized the importance of corruption, but the rural corruption that Afghans like Noorullah face was not mentioned anywhere in this short document.[46] When Petraeus later released an “anti-corruption strategy,” it was focused explicitly and exclusively on limiting the corruption that plagues the contracting process in Afghanistan.[47] When General John R. Allen replaced General Petraeus as COMISAF, he again failed to mention local government corruption in his initial letter to his command, in which he outlined his own counter-insurgency principles.[48] He never released a new anti-corruption strategy that supersedes Petraeus’. When asked to comment on anti-corruption efforts by the House Committee on Armed Services on 20 March 2012, Allen emphasized efforts to limit the influence of criminal patronage networks and corruption at borders, inland customs depots, and airports, and highlighted the operations of Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF)-Shafafiyat and Task Force 2010.[49]

CJIATF-Shafafiyat is the lead organization in ISAF’s anti-corruption efforts. Shafafiyat is the Pastho and Dari word for transparency. In August 2010, the new task force began functioning as a staff integrator with operational control of three existing task forces: Task Force 2010, which focused on “linking contracting with desired counter-insurgency effects,”[50] Task Force Spotlight, which focused on private security companies; and CJIATF-Nexus, which focused on criminal patronage networks (CPNs) and the narcotics trade.[51] According to the first commander of the Shafafiyat, Major General H.R. McMaster, the previous task forces were anti-corruption in only a “narrow sense” and the new organization was set up to understand the nature of the corruption problem in Afghanistan and coordinate responses to it at the highest level.[52] In their July 2011 Mission Overview, implementation of COMISAF’s COIN Contracting Guidance was Shafafiyat’s first priority, followed by improving their understanding of the corruption problem.[53]

Task Force 2010, which is currently commanded by Major General Richard Longo,  cooperates closely with Shafafiyat and until recently was under Shafafiyat’s operational control. It focuses exclusively on limiting contracting corruption. This focus makes sense in some ways. Contracting corruption is in effect a form of theft. It costs ISAF money, limits the success of development projects, and embarrasses ISAF. In some cases the ISAF contracting process, which the Taliban work so hard to take advantage of, becomes so confused that ISAF almost directly funds the Taliban. This is particularly embarrassing when publicized in lurid media reports.[54] Continued contracting corruption also contributes to the growth of kleptocratic governance in Afghanistan, confuses Afghans about ISAF’s willingness to enforce standards and their intent. It is only natural that ISAF work hard to limit it.

More importantly, ISAF does not have the option of not working hard to limit it. The US Congress has made it very clear that it has no tolerance for mismanagement of the contracting process. When Congress established the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2008, the most specific mandate in its enabling legislation was to focus on contracting corruption, requiring comprehensive audits of ISAF and other contracts. If ISAF chooses to reduce its focus on contracting corruption, Congress will soon hear about it through one of SIGAR’s quarterly reports.[55]

Interestingly, ISAF has attempted to justify a focus on contracting corruption in a way Congress and SIGAR have yet to. ISAF believes that contracting corruption is the root cause of Afghanistan’s persistent corruption problem, including the rural corruption that Noorullah faced and is the gravest threat to ISAF’s mission. A 2011 ISAF special report on empowering local governance explained how ISAF imagines it addresses local governance issues by fighting contracting corruption, when it stated plainly: “More often than not, these local politics are predatory and based on capturing off-budget resources executed by development contractors.”[56] While Noorullah would probably agree that his local politics are predatory, he and most other Afghans do not think that the problem is part of contracting. In 2011 HTS interviews, only 29% of Afghans believed that ISAF’s provision of “lots of money” to Afghans contributes to corruption at all.[57] Given ISAF’s aggressively publicized campaigns to reduce contracting corruption, this number may be artificially high.

Organizations outside ISAF appear less focused than Congress or ISAF on contracting corruption. Transparency International has called for an approach focusing “creating a culture in the public sector that respects integrity, transparency and accountability” through training, mentoring, and corruption monitoring teams.”[58] UNODC advocates a similar approach, going so far as to suggest regular polygraph tests for public officials.[59] USAID studies into the corruption problem in Afghanistan had an important formative influence on the thinking of Shafafiyat personnel on the corruption problem,[60] and USAID reports define the problem in very similar terms to those Shafafiyat uses. Former Shafafiyat commander Brigadier General Ricky Waddell identified a report from House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform from 2010 called Warlord, INC.; Extortion and Corruption along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan as particularly influential.[61]

CJIATF-Shafafiyat’s broader strategy for dealing with corruption is not obsessively focused on contracting corruption. Task Force 2010 has maintained the lead in that specific effort.[62] Shafafiyat has brought a mass of intelligence and analytical capability to bear on the corruption problem that the other task forces were unable to do independently. Shafafiyat initially identified its first, key task as understanding the nature of the corruption problem. General McMaster identified the problem as one of “political will” - that is, corruption survives because of a lack of the political will to fight it.[63] In order to effectively fight corruption, Shafafiyat engages in both counter-corruption efforts by aggressively pursuing “criminals” and anti-corruption efforts that seek to develop and empower honest leaders. The counter-corruption campaign managed by the Plans and Implementation Cell has five component lines of effort (LOEs): security sector reform, governance and role of law, development economics and contracting, counter-narcotics, and criminal patronage network reduction. The anti-corruption effort, which General Waddell characterized as part of Shafafiyat’s overall effort of “getting Afghans to talk to Afghans,” is embodied in the crosscutting effort called Taqwiyate Shafafiyat, meaning “Empowering the People for Transparency” in Pashto. Shafafiyat pursues these objectives through empowering Afghans, seeking to build an “energized civil society” through myriad mechanisms. In their pursuit of an ethical Afghanistan, they have leveraged everything from rule of law initiatives to rock music projects.[64]

The organizations supporting the anti-corruption effort have changed over time. Task Force Spotlight was deactivated in the aftermath of legal changes limiting the use of foreign security contractors in Afghanistan. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the law enforcement effort at the International Operations Coordination Center, they Afghan Threat Finance Cell managed by the Treasury Department, and the still-extant Task Force Nexus also all have roles in the anti-corruption effort. Various Afghan organizations do as well, especially the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), which has looked at the rural corruption problem specifically. As the mission in Afghanistan changes, COMISAF is in the process of combining components of these efforts with Shafafiyat to form CJIATF-Afghanistan, a new task force that will eventually unite the corruption effort under one commander. The new task force will contain about 150 personnel.[65]

A Better Way Forward

CJIATF-Shafafiyat and the other anti-corruption task forces in Afghanistan have done an excellent job of limiting the sorts of corruption they are interested in stopping. Their personnel are dedicated to their mission and knowledgeable about the Afghan people. In order to better address the problems of corruption in Afghanistan, however, they should focus on the problems of rural corruption that are most damaging to the Afghan state.

Whenever they implement new strategies to tackle corruption, Shafafiyat should ask: “What does this mean to the typical Afghan (our Noorullah), and what does that mean for the mission?” In order to do so, Shafafiyat should identify reduction of local governance corruption as a crosscutting line of effort, similar to the current Taqwiyate Shafafiyat civil society effort. Shafafiyat should stand up a dedicated group focusing on local governance corruption on par with the cells focusing on the other LOEs within their Plans and Implementation Cell. This is eminently sensible given the nature and importance of the local governance corruption problem. Shafafiyat other LOEs focus on problems that contribute to the local governance problem by Shafifyat’s own admission. Moreover, local governance represents the interface of the Afghan government and people and as this paper has shown problems in that interface are a dire threat to our war effort and to the viability of the Afghan state. The rural corruption LOE group should have a close relationship with and possibly manage ISAF’s relationship with the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) and the Ministry for Rural Reconstruction and Development (MRRD), just as other LOEs have ministerial partners in the Afghan government. The cooperation of these two organizations within GIRoA is essential to the success of any effort to address local governance corruption. Having Shafafiyat manage the relationship with these organizations is reasonable given that corruption has come to define rural governance and Shafafiyat’s role as a headquarters-level staff body. Shafafiyat should also leverage its relationship with the Afghan National Assembly as part of the effort, which has an organizational interest in resilient local governance.

This cell should take the lead in putting out guidance for junior and mid-level leaders in ISAF on how to deal with corruption in their areas of operation at the levels of government they work with, working in collaboration with other elements of Shafafiyat. Because of the current lack of guidance, many efforts to address corruption in specific regions may not be nested within the broader anti-corruption effort led by Shafafiyat, and some leaders may be ignoring the problem. Given the importance of the corruption problem we need centralized strategic guidance in order to build a unified effort. This problem will require a solution that does not only come from Shafafiyat, as the problem cannot be laid squarely in their area of responsibility. General Petraeus put out such guidance while General Allen did not.

ISAF and Shafafiyat may face substantial pressure to focus on contracting corruption as it moves forward, possibly at the expense of other anti-corruption efforts. Task Force 2010 will be the largest element in the new combined CJIATF-Afghanistan and will provide the senior-most officer. Given our history of focus on contracting corruption and the still-lingering potential for continued Congressional pressure to fix problems in the contacting process, we must be careful to avoid a myopic and dangerous focus on the contracting process. Any future efforts must maintain the commendable broad-mindedness of CJIATF-Shafafiyat and look at the corruption problem as a whole, rather than a component of it, if they wish to achieve valuable results.

Outside pressure might also encourage a premature abandonment of the anti-corruption effort. We should recognize that the drawdown need not necessarily impede the anti-corruption effort. In-country troop strength is not key to our efforts and the shift to an advisory role would not limit our ability to maintain the relatively small number of troops now working on this issue in Afghanistan. Our continuing efforts in Afghanistan will parallel other US-led anti-corruption effort being established in other areas.[66] Prematurely abandoning the flagship effort would have serious ramifications for any future counterinsurgency campaigns. ISAF clearly understands this, and it is important that we ensure our allies and American politicians do as well.

As the US establishes anti-corruption organizations in other military commands, now is also an appropriate time to consider the ramifications of military-led efforts to fight corruption. Fighting corruption is not part of the military’s traditional mission and despite the successes of the anti-corruption fight in Afghanistan it is not necessarily a task the military is suited to. Before we allow pragmatic necessity to create a potentially awkward precedent, we must carefully consider the ramifications of creating military organizations dedicated to solving political problems when organizations out-of-uniform might be able to tackle them just as well, or better.

As ISAF moves forward, they should also consider the validity of economic solutions to the Afghan corruption problem. We have to understand the interests of Afghans in order to create lasting solutions. The model of the market for public services presented in this paper is supported by the preponderance of evidence and indicates that what matters to Noorullah and others like him is low-level corruption in rural areas, the corruption he encounters whenever he tries to gain access to security, arbitration, or other public services. This corruption, then, is what means the most for the mission. It severely limits access to public services and the social and economic opportunities for most Afghans, redistributes wealth and power, and destroys popular support for the Afghan government. It may also be the key factor in ensuring continued support for the Taliban and in fueling the insurgency. Much of the Taliban could not function without the support they gain in rural areas where the government is a predatory monopoly. When Afghans decide to join the Taliban to fight against GIRoA, they often do so because they are poor, hopeless, and have no economically viable alternative. ISAF must shift its focus to what matters – rural corruption. It is an imperative they have thus far largely ignored.

If continued research indicates that the model presented in this paper is accurate, ISAF also needs to develop innovative new ways to solve the problems presented by Afghan corruption that are very different from past methods. ISAF’s shift in focus should be accompanied by a shift in thinking. Realist thought and recognition of the economic nature of the corruption problem are the keys to success.

Weak governance, the fragile wartime economy, and fractured state structures are just some of the root causes of corruption in Afghanistan, and they are astounding problems. Much of the world faces similar problems, and because of this the “good governance” that ISAF programs such as Taqwiyate Shafafiyat seeks to develop in Afghanistan is something of a rarity. According to the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, 80% of the world’s population lives under a government they perceive as corrupt.[67] Given Afghanistan’s status as one of the most corrupt states in the world, it seems unlikely any amount of ISAF effort will build the sort of civil society that needed to bring Afghanistan in among the well-governed minority of states. The best way forward must abandon utopian thinking. Civil-society based solutions are impressive but doomed if they are carried out alone.

Rather than working hard to set the lowest possible upper bound on corruption, ISAF should seek to limit the negative effects of corruption by controlling it. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency recognizes that legitimate governments have “a culturally acceptable level of corruption.”[68] The “culturally acceptable” level of corruption desired is the economically efficient level. What Westerners think of that level is irrelevant to the success of the mission.

A single bribe does little to hinder the war effort. Just like most people around the world, Noorullah recognizes that corruption is part of his life and is unlikely to go away. What hinders the war effort is the exorbitant bribe-prices that government officials charge for public services, which are unattainable for every day Afghans like Noorullah. Denuded of their role in massively redistributing wealth, the ill will and cynicism they generate through their high prices, and their role in contributing to the Taliban insurgency, a bribe is simply social and economic reality. If Noorullah could afford public services, his relationship with the government would be much better. While it would still be imperfect, the improvement could be incredible. It would look just a little like victory.

Free of normative assumptions about bribes, the market for public services becomes an economic system with differentiated good, competitive suppliers, and consumers of limited resources. This paper will not attempt to propose an exact method for manipulating the market for Afghan public services. One can undoubtedly be developed, but only with more information than is currently publicly available. The model in this paper can, however, give us some idea of what the efficient level of corruption looks like. Successful strategies would aim to make public services more affordable to Noorullah. Effective solutions would break or limit the monopolistic power held by rural Afghan officials, which can be done through a variety of means already heavily studied by economists. With the monopoly in shambles, the price of bribes would go down substantially, while the quantity of public services supplied would go up. The numbers would be confusing. The total number of Afghans who would report paying a bribe in a given year would go up substantially. In a simplistic way, “corruption would increase.”

This trend needs to be reversed. Noorullah and those like him, not numbers on a spreadsheet, is what matters in this battle. After effective manipulation of the market for public services, Noorullah would be able to solve his water dispute for a price that would not burden his family. He and many of his fellow rural Afghans would be socially and economically empowered. The security and arbitration services that rural Afghans desire would be accessible again. The unpopular public services of the Taliban would seem like a much less desirable option, limiting the insurgency and slowly isolating them from the people and leaving them vulnerable. By seeking a higher number of bribes and a lower average price of bribes through monopoly-busting market manipulation, CJIATF-Shafafiyat and ISAF can limit the corruption that does the most damage to the war effort.


There will be no foreign combat troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, in accordance with plans developed at the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago. By mid to late 2013 all of the 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan will transition an “advise and assist role” in order to focus on preparing the ANSF for their takeover of all security operations from ISAF before the 2014 end of their mission.[69] Most European contributors to ISAF have promised to stay to the planned end, but the alliance is beginning to splinter. The French government accelerated their withdrawal response to a fratricidal attack by an ANSF soldier on French forces last spring.[70] Australia has also accelerated their withdrawal. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recognized the central reason the war is ending when she announced her nation’s accelerated withdrawal timeline: “the peoples of the world’s democracies are weary of this war.”[71] NATO members continue to discuss who will continue to pay billions of dollars to support the ANSF after foreign combat troops return home.[72] The question of who will fund the rest of the Afghan government is still hard to answer.

The inability of the Afghan government to fund itself arises in part from the problems discussed in this paper, as does the need for such an expensive security establishment. The drawdown of foreign forces and the likely resulting decrease in NGO efforts will only exacerbate problems with corruption; just as the implementation of “population-centric COIN” strategies have since 2009. Without serious changes in ISAF’s anti-corruption strategy, the negative effects of the inefficient market for public services in Afghanistan will grow more problematic.

As ISAF seeks to develop strategies that will keep the Taliban at bay after the drawdown, mitigating the problems arising from rural corruption must be a priority. The solutions will not be intuitive, nor will they be easy to implement at this late hour. They are, however, still possible despite the transition and withdrawal. Large ground forces need not play a central role in any solutions. The economic model of corruption presented in this paper can be an effective starting point for developing more effective solutions to the problems of Afghan corruption. Developing those solutions must begin with a change in thinking. Currently, ISAF and the Afghan people have different views of Afghan corruption. ISAF sees bribes as a dangerous evil while Afghans recognize them as an unavoidable reality. If ISAF adopts the Afghan view of corruption and treats bribes as an economic good and corruption as a market system, they can develop solutions that can eliminate the negative effects caused by the failure of the market for bribes and public services, even if that means increasing the number of bribes paid by rural Afghans. Failing to do so may make herculean military and economic efforts to build the Afghan state irrelevant.

Acknowledgements: I could not have written this paper without the help of many people who encouraged and challenged me. Major Pete Peters of the Department of Social Sciences, U.S. Military Academy encouraged me to continue my research on this topic after I submitted a version of this paper in partial fulfillment of requirements for his introductory economics class, and suggested looking at Afghan corruption as a market. Major General H.R. McMaster, formerly commander of CJIATF-Shafafiyat, granted me an interview that was incredibly valuable in shaping my understanding of the pressures that forged Shafafiyat. Brigadier General Ricky Waddell, the subsequent commander of Shafafiyat, also took time out of his busy schedule for an interview that provided unique insight into the future of the task force. Colonel Isaiah Wilson III of the Department of Social Sciences encouraged me to submit the paper to Small Wars Journal. Major John Kendall of the same Department provided valuable insights as the paper took its final form. Major Aram Donigian took time to discuss the organization of Shafafiyat with me in detail shortly after returning from a tour there as Deputy Chief of Engagements there, and without his organizational advice the suggestions section of this paper would be far weaker. Major Jaron Wharton, formerly of Shafafiyat, made me realize that many of my initial assumptions about the relationship between NGOs and ISAF were wrong. Major Stan Johnson of the Department of Military Instruction helped me craft accurate vignettes for use in the paper based on his time as  Company Commander in Paktika Province in 2009-2010 and encouraged me to write the paper with a military audience in mind. Captain Felisa Dyrud of Shafafiyat filled my inbox with data on Afghan corruption and on Shafafiyat, including the Human Terrain System research that was incredibly valuable in understanding the topic and information on Taqwiyate Shafafiyat. Brigadier General (retired) Michael Meese and Major Kent Park of the Department of Social Sciences and Major James Pope of the Department of Military Instruction provided exceptionally valuable commentary on early drafts of the paper. I give all of them my sincerest thanks for their kind assistance. Many of the reviewers disagreed with my position on Afghan corruption, ensuring that this paper has changed and improved drastically from its first draft. Finally, I would like to thank Second Lieutenant Brian Meese, Cadet Meghan Wentz and Cadet Jacob Swatley for providing much-needed editing on early drafts of this paper, when it was still a project for the Undergraduate Journal of Social Sciences at West Point, and Cadet Aaron Spikol for his reliable criticism up to the final draft. Despite the assistance of the individuals above, any mistakes in this paper, factual or otherwise, are my own.

[1] US Department of State: Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, “Background Note: Afghanistan,” December 6, 2010, /5380.htm.

[2] Some surveys suggest other issues are more important, but all rank corruption as a major issue.

“Drain the Swamp of Corruption in Afghanistan,’ Says UNODC,” UN Information Service, January 19, 2010.

[3] Ben W. Heineman, “Corruption – The Afghan Wild Card,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2009.

[4] Paul Tait, “Afghan govt faces fallout from grim IMF assessment,” Reuters, February 15, 2011.

[5] Ruth Rene, “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” The Asia Foundation, 2011, 78.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] “Drain the Swamp of Corruption in Afghanistan,’ Says UNODC,” UN Information Service.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The CSO is not responsible for collecting corruption statistics, but it is responsible for compiling statistics from across all government agencies.

Central Statistics Office of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, “Education Report.” Undated, 79,

[10] UNODC has offered contradictory statistics, sometimes claiming that half of Afghans have paid in bribe in the past six months. Generally, rural Afghans face substantially less corruption because they have fewer routine interactions with the state, and encounter state officials primarily when seeking security, arbitration, or infrastructure services. However, since they lack alternative ways to attain services, they are more likely to participate in the corrupt market for public services and pay bribes than their urban counterparts. For the purposes of this paper, “minor” bribes paid for passage at checkpoints and other daily activities are not considered part of the market for public services. Higher figures on the incidence of corruption are so because of the inclusion of “minor” bribes. The high average price of bribes arises from the prevalence of bribes for “major” activities as listed in the previous paragraph.

Rene, “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” 78.

[11] Ernesto Londoño, “Survey of Afghans points to rampant corruption in government,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2011.

[12] Glevum Associates, LLC, “AF SSRA Corruption Survey,” Human Terrain System Social Science Research and Analysis, September 2011, 9.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] “Drain the Swamp of Corruption in Afghanistan,’ Says UNODC,” UN Information Service.

[15] CIA World Factbook, “Afghanistan,” April 10, 2010.

[16] HTS interviews conducted in the summer of 2011 found that majorities of urban Afghans say that corruption is most common when they seek to resolve a civil or criminal court case, get or retain a job (67%), attempt to obtain identification (61%), file a police case or obtain police services, or receive electricity from the government (54%). Rural Afghans are unlikely to require government jobs, to need to obtain identification (which is mostly important to urban Afghans who interact with ISAF and NGOs), and rarely are connected to the country’s small and inefficient electric grid.

Glevum Associates, LLC, “AF SSRA Corruption Survey,” 7.

[17] Jon W. Anderson, “There Are No Khans Anymore: Economic Development and Social Change in Tribal Afghanistan,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring, 1978), 167-183.

[18] Eureka Research argues that much of this increase in negative perception of corruption is because of an increase in media coverage of corruption. However, this second-hand anger can only be expected when the majority of Afghans are priced out of the market and do not directly participate in it.

Eureka Research Evaluation, “Public Perception Polling – Phase 2. Annex B ‘Corruption and Government,” Eureka Research, September 15, 2010, 2.

[19] Larry Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson, “Parallels With the Past – How the Soviets Lost in Afghanistan, How the Americans are Losing,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, April 2011, .goodson_johnson.afghanistan.html.

[20] FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 3-85, 5-95, and B-16.

[21] Development experts will point out that many aid groups do now wish to be perceived as part of the war effort. Even government entities such as USAID recognize that if their aid is seen as a part of a coercive war effort, it will be less effective. However, they still require basic security to operate and thus the ISAF withdrawal from rural areas is undoubtedly, if inexactly, linked to a withdrawal of NGOs from rural areas and a decrease in the supply of non-governmental public services. Moreover, ISAF provides key security and sometimes arbitration services wherever it operates, and thus also functions as a supplier of competitive public services.

See also: United States Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan, June 8, 2011 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011), FM 3-24, A-46, and Ron Nordland, “U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Worries Aid Groups,” The New York Times, December 5, 2011.

[22] Rene, “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” 23.

[23] This is especially clear in Figure 7 of the UNODC report and in their section 4 – “Recruitment Practices in the Public Sector.”

UN Office on Drugs and Crime & Islamic Republic of Afghanistan High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, “Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent patterns and trends,” December 2012, 12 & 19-20.

[24] Ibid, 5.

[25] Ibid, 3.

[26] Ibid, 27-28.

[27] Ibid., 29.

[28] Ibid, 5.

[29] Ibid, 8.

[30] Ibid, 16.

[31] Ibid., 5.

[32] Ibid, 8.

[33] Ibid, 7.

[34] FM3-24: Counterinsurgency, 3-49 and 3-71.

[35] Raphael Cohen, “Afghan Corruption: Looking Beyond the Poll Numbers,” American Enterprise Institute Center for Defense Studies, August 7, 2011,  http://www

[36] Although the book has certain biases, Abdul Salam Zaeef’s account of his time with the Taliban in the 1990s provides valuable and accurate insights into the Taliban approach to public services provision and corruption after taking power.

See Zaeef, “The Beginning” (ch. 8) and “Administrative Rule” (ch. 9) in My Life with the Taliban (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[37] The exact number is contentious. The Taliban can definitely mobilize tens of thousands of fighters across Afghanistan, especially in the south. Moreover, since the Taliban are the main cause of much of the violence villagers need protection from, their security services are comparable to extortion and the exact number of fighters is often unimportant.

[38] Stefanie Nijssen, “The Taliban’s Shadow Government in Afghanistan,” The Civil-Military Fusion Centre, September 2011,

[39] Glevum Associates, LLC, “AF SSRA Corruption Survey,” 8.

[40] UN Office on Drugs and Crime & Islamic Republic of Afghanistan High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, “Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent patterns and trends,” December 2012, 25.

[41] Mullen, Rani D. “Afghanistan in 2009: Trying to Pull Bank from the Brink.” Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 1 (January/February 2010), pp. 127-138.

[42] Rahmat Alizada, “Reign of the desert court,” Afghanistan Today, November 8, 2011.

[43] Glevum Associates, LLC, “AF SSRA Corruption Survey,” 11.

[44] United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Afghan civilian casualties rise 31 per cent in the first six months of 2010,” August 10, 2010.

[45] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction , “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” November 2010, Report to Congress in accordance with section 1230 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (Public Law 110-181), as amended, 62.

[46] David H. Petraeus, “COMISAF’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) Guidance,” Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force, August 2010, /from-the-commander/from-the-commander/comisaf-s-counterinsurgency-guidance.html.

[47] Ibid.

[48] John R. Allen, “COMISAF’s Letter to the Troops.” Headquarters, International Security Assistances Force/ United States Forces – Afghanistan, July 18, 2011.

[49]John R. Allen, Transcript of testimony to the House Committee on Armed Services. March 20, 2012. Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force.

[50] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction , “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” 62.

[51] CIJATF-Shafifyat Mission Overview and Core Concepts, July 2011.

[52] Interview with Major General H.R. McMaster, 2 October 2012.

[53] CIJATF-Shafifyat Mission Overview and Core Concepts, July 2011.

[54] For a notable example, see Aram Roston, ”How the US Funds the Taliban,” The Nation, November 11, 2009.

[55] National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-181 (Jan. 28, 2008), 122 STATUTES AT LARGE 234-36, sec. 842: “INVESTIGATION OF WASTE, FRAUD AND ABUSE IN WARTIME CONTRACTS AND CONTRACTING PROCESSES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANSTAN.”

[56] COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team. “Civic Mobilization: Empowering Local Governance.” October 2011, 1.

[57] Glevum Associates, LLC. “AF SSRA Corruption Survey,” 8.

[58] Transparency International, “An Open Letter from Transparency International to the Participates of the London Conference on Afghanistan on 28 January 2010,” Reliefweb, January 26, 2010, /343866.

[59] “Drain the Swamp of Corruption in Afghanistan,’ Says UNODC,” UN Information Service.

[60] Interview with Major General H.R. McMaster, 2 October 2012.

[61] Interview with Brigadier General Ricky Waddell, 28 September 2012.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Interview with Major General H.R. McMaster, 2 October 2012.

[64] Taqwiyate Shafafiyat: Empowering People To Fight Corruption. Version as of November 2011. See also: Kirk, Col. Tim and Capt. Felisa Dyrud. “Civil Society and Counterinsurgency.” COIN Common Sense, Volume 2, Issue 2. December 2011.

[65] Interview with Brigadier General Ricky Waddell, 28 September 2012.

[66] These efforts include JIATF-South at SOUTCOM, JIATF-West at PACCOM, and a counter-trafficking effort recently established in EUCOM by Admiral Stavridis.

 Interview with Brigadier General Ricky Waddell, 28 September 2012.

[67] Transparency International. “Corruption Perceptions Index 2011.” <>.

[68] FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 1-116.

[69] BBC, “Afghanistan: Leon Panetta signals end to US combat role,” BBC News: US and Canada, February 1, 2012,

[70] Steven Erlangerand and Ron Nordland, “France, Breaking With NATO, Will Speed Afghan Exit,” The New York Times, January 27, 2012.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Elizabeth Bumiller, “U.S. and NATO Finalize Pacts on Ending Afghan War,” The New York Times, April 18, 2012.


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this is a great article, and i wish the author success in joining the MI corps. i was deployed at division level RC command during my last go in afghanistan and also noted the disparity between the ISAF/IJC perception of what corruption is and the Afghan perception of the same issue. throughout my time there, i failed to get it through to the policymakers above me that layman Afghans such as the hypothetical Noorullah are more empowered by economic incentives than vague foreign concepts such as democratic rule of law and universal suffrage. at the time, my suggestion that Afghans were used to low-level cronyism and nepotism from sources such as the Karzai family and that such systems were still viewed as somewhat legitimate governance was characterized as defeatist and overly negative; my work on the subject would draw rebukes from officers and civilian advisers alike for being contrary to the "official" line. those same people also could not comprehend why locals preferred taliban judges to GIRoA courts. they seemed oblivious to the fact that their black-and-white definition of corruption had decimated the low-level ranks of officials that could be reasonably bribed, leaving Afghans who had disputes to choose between the high-priced village elders, DCoPs, and provincial judges or the taliban.

in 27 days i will leave the active duty MI corps and a few months after that i will start graduate studies in international relations. my decision to call time on my army career is partially due to my inability to sway the thinking of decision makers from my current position (enlisted 35F). articles like this give me hope that the next generation of leaders and shapers in the army can learn from and adapt off of our experiences in afghanistan, no matter how sobering the reality on the ground may be.

Interesting comment. I agree, it is a thought-provoking article and echos other comments made around here over the years.

On a side note, is there an attempt being made to gather comments like the above or conduct systematic interviews of certain military populations in order to help the institution or scholars "remember" all this knowledge? I saw a previous paper here that did just that, interviewing a group and documenting their ideas.

As many may know, I have spent most of the last decade or more producing a content-archiving website that provides convenient, readable access to over 500,000 print articles from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with hundreds of thousands of books.
Most of these articles are drawn from what were once America’s leading journals of intellectual thought and influence, but which eventually vanished so completely that their very names have long been forgotten. Studying our history of the last century or two without giving full consideration to these periodicals would be similar to analyzing the domestic politics of the Vietnam War while ignoring CBS, NBC, ABC, and The New York Times.

And now, social media too.

First all, approaching the problem from this paradigm is long overdue and I hope more people begin to do this working within ISAF. It provides so much more insight and actionable conclusions than cultural perspectives weighed down by our own subjective ideals. I have been there many times and pushed for a political economy approach to Afghanistan, with very limited success I must add, so I hope this has more luck.

Having said that I do have a comment about the conclusions I am inferring from your work based on the assessment that the market breakdown in this instance is due to the inability of new actors to enter the market (which I believe is a fundamental assumption for well-functioning markets outlined by Smith).

Based on this logic I see two practical solutions to this problem: First the government allows everyone to enter the market for public services. However, it then has to regulate this market to ensure no actor takes too big a share of the market or we tend back to the problem we had to begin with. This is likely to be especially troublesome in Afghanistan where government institutions of rule of law and policing are so weak. This vacuum of regulation would give nefarious actors all sorts of means to dominate the market for corruption, both using traditional market mechanisms of monopolising supply etc and, perhaps more pertinently in Afghanistan, using violence to eliminate potential competitors. Encouraging competing systems of dispute resolution etc would also likely cause unwanted side effects.

The second is to maintain the monopoly in space but allow the consumer (ie the public) to assess the performance of the supplier through time, based on the price of services and the quality of provision, changing the supplier of services if a more suitable offer presents itself. Operationally this concept is probably best described as accountable and transparent democracy, and best fits how the system works in most Western countries with taxes levied working as the payment to officials, back through the central government to servants of the state. This cannot really work unless people can actually directly vote for local officials. The constitutional design in Afghanistan has prevented this from taking hold and local politicians owe their positions to patronage rather than a popular vote. It also needs the government to be functional enough to collect taxes and then redistribute payment to civil servants. Something you highlight is currently lacking. The short-termism of many Afghan politicians, as pointed out by another commenter, also probably affects the equilibrium behaviour on this one.

Beyond this I find it impossible to operationalise a means to regulate this market in isolation. The first of these solutions directly tackles corruption, while the second would be part of a wider effort to institute good governance and the rule of law, understanding how this would affect the ‘corruption market’. In the latter, the price paid is through taxes levied. However, both would be heavily reliant on developing strong government institutions, democracy and the rule of law, security organs – and that is where the real problem lies in Afghanistan.

In short, I think the solutions even within a market context come from supporting the broader development of democracy, rule of law and good governance, rather than treating the corruption market in isolation. The key for analysts working on the problem is to understand how the wider political context, based on market principles, dictates the manner and scope of corruption and then propose solutions based on this, rather than seek to tackle the corruption market directly. It has been doing latter, albeit not from within the economic paradigm, that has been partly responsible for our inability to make any real long-term gains in this field.


I'm happy you find this approach useful.

As to potential solutions, I really do think more analysis is needed before we can venture suggesting any of these. I've toyed with many of them but since they're analyzed in a vacuum regarding good data (at least, for me, being very geographically distant) I have no good solutions. The problem with competition as I see it is that a government is supposed to be a monopoly. That's not just in regards to violence (ie security services), but also in regards to arbitration services (an essential component of sovereignty) and other services. NGOs and aid are effectively competitors, but when they act as competitors rather than through the government they can be incredibly damaging to governments. Development experts think of this as vertical versus horizontal aid, and there's a vigorous debate in their community regarding what it does to governments.

I hadn't seriously considered the impact of democracy on the system. Do regular local elections operating at a level that parallels public services markets function as a form of feedback regarding prices? Maybe. Something else for me to look into.

Couldn't agree more with your bottom line. Our past efforts should be continued - they just need some reinforcements.

Thanks for the commentary,


Cadet T.S. Allen,

I agree with the long comment praising this work of yours. I certainly hope you aced this paper! And I am a bit Mex-green with envy. It has been many years since I was in college but not so long as to know that such a work was beyond me at that age (and, perhaps, this one, too).

I do not want to sing too many praises to undercut my credibility in thinking yours is breath-taking work. Good for you. There are a few questions or thoughts -- and two of them conflict -- that crossed my mind, not in a spirit of skepticism but in one of curiosity.

FIRST, if the GIRoA-provided services (such as they are) remain preferable to those of the Taliban, may the pricing of the bribes be so high because there are few of these services available? Or few competent administrators to make them available? That would drive the price up to ration limited supply in the face of greater demand.

SECOND, and contradictory (hey, I dogged Logic, okay?), would those GIRoA-provided services be preferable to the Taliban alternatives because they reflect the generous funding of foreign N.G.O.s and governments on whose behalf the local GIRoA officials are conduits?

The other three points are simply observations. FIRST, as I read your truly marvelous essay and your detailed exposition of the various anti-corruption programs, I got this sense that I.S.A.F. resembles the old colonial governments of Britain.

SECOND, one source of corruption I have wondered, when working in Iraq or Afghanistan, is the fact that there is no life insurance or pensions. The public officials do not earn much and are very vulnerable to being murdered due to their visibility. Accordingly, they take what they can, when they can, IN PART to provide back-up funding for the family.

LASTLY, and well beyond the scope of your thoughtful study, all of this discussion of government structure, monopolistic pricing of services, etc. assumes that Afghanistan is a country in the first place. I am not convinced that it is. If my notion is correct, I haven't the vaguest idea of how we should respond.

In any case, great work. Thank you for your service to my country.
Ned McDonnell,
Peace Corps-Mexico.


Thanks for the compliments, and the commentary. I'll try to address your thoughts one-by-one.

On your first point, I think that all of those factors contribute to the high price of public services. Essentially, though, it always makes sense for a monopoly to provide too few public services at prices too high for many potential customers to afford. It limits the resources expended and, so long as the price isn’t too high, still brings in substantial profit. Even in situations where the impediments you mention exist, the current negative situation would be perpetuated by GIRoA officials to maximize their gains.

On your second, I think that the benefits of foreign aid are very limited. If too much funding is available, the glut of resources often limits efficiency – John Stuart Blackton argued this was the root of the Afghan corruption problem.

I identify three key differences in public services provision from the British colonial government, all of which can be generalized to the comparison of imperialism and modern interventionism. First, ISAF and other foreign interventions today operate on short timetables that encourage subversion rather than collaboration among local elites – what is often called the “short-term maximization of gains mentality.” Second, that attitude is enabled by globalization. Local elites today are able to become exiles at the end of occupations, whereas local elites in the colonial era rarely had the opportunity to abandon failed governments. This magnifies the effects of the short-term maximization of gains mentality, because wealth “stolen” from an occupier is valuable when one does not expect to die if the occupation ends poorly and has no incentive to guarantee its success. Third, foreign interventions today seek to shore up rather than replace local elites. This often makes real reform impossible within the short timeframe of these invasions.

I think that you’re right to suggest the issue here is more than simply salaries. The problem, as I see it, is that when you have lots of funding for operations now and no guarantee of continued funding (since you don’t collect taxes and the occupier is leaving) to pay personnel in the future or provide them pensions, you do not allow them to get used to high pay or give them pensions. That’s why I don’t pay too much attention to simply pay. It’s a question of how much the government willing to invest in the human capital that will wield power, and how much they expect them to fend for themselves. The more local officials must fend for themselves, the more entrenched the corruption.

I don’t read too much in to the question of whether Afghanistan is a “country.” Whatever they are, they provide public services to the people. So long as that interaction exists, they have a relationship with the people that can either promote or deflate nationalism and thus is part of the process of nation-building.

Thanks again.

T.S. Allen


Very well thought response. Three quick points, though I basically agree with all that you say. First, because it is important to me, is that not all local leaders, especially the women activists, may be thinking in terms of limited time horizons or reason-based utility. They are taking sobering risks to stand up and out. If the Taliban return, they are in a great deal of difficulty if they cannot get out. ISAF should be planning on some type of manner to protect these people; to me, at least, such planning is a moral obligation.

On the pensions and salaries, my thought (out loud) was that people may be seeing that skim as we see our savings and insurance plans. The thought about Afghanistan being a country or not is semi-facetious but underlies my conviction that population-centric (i.e., bottom-up) approaches make sense because there may not be a lot there, up there.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my comment. This work of yours may be significant in reconciling competing conceptions of counter-insurgency (i.e., addressing grievances versus eradicating threats).


You're right that the short-term maximization of gains mentality isn't universal. Your questioning my statement has forced me to re-consider that - am I taking a concept that's really mostly relevant to contracting corruption (which is the product of elites at the head of "criminal patronage networks" taking advantage of the system, those who are most likely, I'd think to get out) and applying it to rural corruption? Maybe.

As to pensions and salaries, that'd be fascinating to analyze. I don't know what the savings rate is among Afghan rural officials, much less what the savings rate is on their earnings from corruption. Something else to look in to.

I can only hope this work might be that helpful.


This might be a very stupid question, but what is the origin of the idea that the Taliban outgoverns? Does it come from interviewing villagers, from population surveys and how does one tease out coercion from the perceptions of good governance?


That’s not a stupid question at all. My argument isn’t just that the Taliban “outgoverns” – it’s that they compete to provide security, arbitration, and other services. The Taliban is substantially less corrupt than GIRoA; all the survey numbers from UNODC and HTS research support that simply fact. This means that Afghans who want Taliban public services can afford them. In this respect, many poor Afghans can be governed by the Taliban when they can’t afford to be governed by the Afghan government. There is a potential confounding factor here, that which you mention: coercion. The Taliban is definitely coercive, but they also operate mostly in regions where they think they have hope of gaining support without coercion. GIRoA’s lucky that the Taliban’s ideological overtones make their public services undesirable to many Afghans, especially those outside of Pasthun regions. GIRoA can also provide many services that the Taliban can’t, such as electrification and Western-style education. Afghans do not necessarily have to have a strong preference for one “type” of public services or the other. The economics of public services provision probably impacts this preference. Based on this, Afghans don’t “choose” one or the other but engage in varying ways with the Taliban and GIRoA. They also have the option of disengaging from both and trying to organize alternatives, which seems to be increasingly common.


Thank you for your reply. That is very helpful. I can't help thinking, however, that time is a variable that cannot be wished or spun away. The point about organizing alternatives is interesting because it suggests some things might survive loss of a heavy outside intervention. Again, thanks.

Outstanding effort and from a cadet with access to key leaders! It points to the need to look at the big picture rather than just anecdotal valley experiences for 7 months to a year. Does the Village Stability Operations program address and monitor this corruption, or is it a source...particularly after scarce ISAF forces leave an area? Even if some villages remain resistance to Taliban firepower due to the VSO, this kind of corruption can ruin local economies and turn hearts and minds against us and the central government.

The average price of a bribe in 2010 was US$160

This price is unattainable to most rural Afghans just like it was to Noorullah. Rural Afghans on average make somewhat less than Afghan Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which is US$900, or about 43,000 Afghanis a year

HTS interviews conducted in the summer of 2011 found that majorities of Afghans stated that corruption is most common when they seek to resolve a civil or criminal court case (69% and 64%) and when they use police services (57%).

Interesting that the average price of each bribe corresponds to about the monthly pay rate of a government official, police officer, or other ANSF. Obviously they feel underpaid, yet without an economic tax-paying base or adequate ISAF funding for ANSF, how long will hard-fought gains last? It took a decade to figure out the VSO but even it would have have had little effect without a larger trained ANA to secure larger urban and more troubled areas.

As he points out, this corruption also is a prime driver for the success of provincial shadow Taliban governments who will not extract bribes. Will bribery get worse when ISAF leaves and reduces payments to the ANSF?

Afghans have become isolated from GIRoA; perhaps as a result, the proportion of Afghans who believed their country was headed in the wrong direction because of corruption increased from 17% to 27% between 2009 and 2011.

Regardless of how competent FID and SFA troops are in their particular valley and Afghan group, these "big picture" problems draws Afghans to the Taliban. The ethnic and language difference remain. Karzai keeps appointing cronies.

Unless we acknowledge such potential problems upfront, there is little that individual positive ink blots can accomplish. Bad ink blots also arise to counter the good because not every rotation is as effective, competent Afghan leaders get killed and intimidated, and the government remains corrupt. Even COP Keating's hundred-man shura lost its effectiveness over time, likely due to either intimidation or ended projects that were just boondoggles to begin with.

If Pashtuns feel oppressed overall and in their particular valley, the larger Northern Alliance plurality there will be attacked and vice versa in southern and eastern provinces. Unless the State Department and President are willing to exploit tactical victories to split up ethnicities before elections, the strategic feuding issues we see in Iraq and Syria will never end.

Move Forward,

I don't know enough about VSOs to comment specifically on them. My knowledge of them is anecdotal. In theory, though, they both provide certain public services and also create security to let NGOs do the same, so they should reduce the problem substantially by enabling competition that forces the GIRoA monopoly to limit its bribe prices and make them attainable to more Afghans. Withdrawal of VSOs will do the opposite except in situations where they have built resilient security.

Other than that, I think the problem is more than simply people being underpaid or the appointment of corrupt individuals. The problem is a broad structure which incentives corrupt behavior that is economically problematic, if not necessarily a problem of Afghan virtue. I'm unsure about the exact impact of ISAF stopping funding GIRoA, but given the continued inefficiency of the tax structure (which, at least, is getting better) and importance of ISAF funds for operations it could be bad. To use some economic jargon in explaining it, if a decrease in resources available increases the opportunity cost of providing a given public service, the result is an increase in the GIRoA monopoly's standard price to match the increased costs of production.

Thanks for the commentary.

T.S. Allen

All I know about VSO/ALP is from this article:

Note that with about 100 programs servicing an assumed 15,000 Afghans each or 1.5 million Afghans, the problem remains there are 29 million Afghans spread out over a Texas-size areas. Those troops supporting VSO/ALP need transportation and resupply, and can't be everywhere while the Taliban have the option to go where the VSO/ALP are include the 3 million population Kabul, the million in and around Kandahar, and in other big and key cities like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalabad.

The VSO/ALP seems optimally positioned near the ring road, however many of the sites are in northern alliance Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, Baluch areas where the Taliban are not as strong because the numbers of Pashtuns are smaller. The 30 ANP in some districts are probably in safer northern areas, whereas it may be harder to retain 300 ANP in larger, more dangerous districts at pay of $120 a month.

Ned, for instance was in the German area in around Kunduz and other northern areas that has suffered only 53 deaths, many of which were accidents, with about half due to suicide bombers or IEDs/bombs/mines according to Over half those deaths came since 2007 when the Taliban presence expanded, particularly after Pakistan closed its borders, and the northern supply route opened.

Nevertheless, kudos to Ned for doing his thing there as an old guy, yet may I be forgiven for wondering what he brought to the table. A few recent articles cited human terrain team and other contractors claiming 80+ hour work-weeks and making well over $200 grand, largely tax-free, and not necessarily with applicable credentials. No wonder he has enough saved to join the Peace Corps. I must admit, the Mexico gig is probably more dangerous than being in northern areas of Afghanistan so you gotta give Ned mucho credit for his good works there...and willingness to risk death or kidnapping!

Again, congrats "cow" cadet on a fine article. I got a bit lost in some of your reply explanations which points to why regular folk don't comprehend economist-speak. I did not really discern your solution to stopping bribes. If they can...they will, and it appears pretty prevalent throughout poor countries. If we can't stop it in places without war, how do you stop it or reduce bribe size in a war zone, where as Ned points out, bribers may be saving for retirement or refugee status once the Taliban return or ISAF funds from donor nations dry up.

Then you have the problem when governments, at home or abroad, make it hard on businesses trying to make a living. My brother struggles to pay California taxes in his bar/restaurant, while his retired Caltran supervisor father-in-law appears to be one of the richer guys in town. I also could relay how a brother-in-law felt he was being indirectly solicited by a building inspector who harassed do-it-himself home remodeling. A cousin and his partners had $20 million invested in a fiber optic company only to have our President provide freebies or low-cost fiber optics contracts to others new to the business as part of the "stimulus." My own decade-plus business faced competition from the town-owned low cost cable TV business and on post rentals, yet I was compelled to charge high rental taxes and pay high business licenses.

You can't fight city (or state) hall, or local cops setting up fake checkpoints if they are so inclined, or favor state and local government workers, unions, and the unemployed at the expense of those willing to work/invest their own capital.

Move Forward,

It would be interesting to try to analyze the impact of VSO/ ALP on corruption if I have more detailed numbers. I will keep that in mind - thanks for the suggestion.

As regards to your other commentary, I don't think it's appropriate to use this particular comments area to debate about HTS, much less Ned (even if you do balance it somewhat, it's simply unnecessary to discuss that here or to usepolemical language). I don't know about much about HTS as a program so I'll venture no more reply than that. Their relevance here is only that they were an incredibly valuable source of information for my analysis, so they clearly can have some great value.

As to the solutions, you're right to point out they're imperfect. Simply put, though, the problem is economic so the solution should be economic, whatever that may be. Only after we recognize that can we start the sort of data collection and analysis that can positively impact the situation in the most efficient way.


Move Forward,

The little voice inside my head says I ought not be a dweeb by allowing your remarks to go unanswered. Yet I do not want to indulge in the proverbial 'urinary Olympics', either.

Others in this refreshingly intellectual forum have criticized my writing, often correctly and always with some value for me. For that I am grateful, sometimes after swallowing hard.

Your remarks, however, were the first to denigrate me directly. Not altogether surprising since you are hiding behind a pseudonym.

Suffice it to say, I can cite and quote friends, both civilian and military, who thought I brought a good deal to the table. Additionally, I can tell you why they thought so. Finally, I have not over-stated my hours worked.

What concerns me, in the end, is this practice of yours of trolling for anecdotes or newspaper articles (i.e., unrepresentative samples) to justify your criticizing someone's writings or work; neither constructive nor beneficial.

In the end, you, too, would be welcome to join the civilian contribution in places like Afghanistan, if you are qualified. There are many in their fifties, some in their sixties and fewer in their seventies who do, often contributing mightily.

With regret,
Ned McDonnell (not a pseudonym).