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Sarah Chayes’ 2015 book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, is a page-turning look at how badly we screwed up in Afghanistan, why, and how we can do better next time.

An NPR reporter who covered Algeria in the 1990s, Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to cover the war. She stayed, determined to make a difference and to help rebuild the nation. Leaving journalism, she began working first with a nonprofit she helped Qayum Karzai, older brother to President Hamid Karzai, establish. She slowly began to appreciate the scope of the corruption in the war-torn nation, and the damage it did.

An outsider, she fell into the same trap that she would later warn against: the tendency to rely on local proxies to help navigate in a region at war. Her experiences with some of the Karzai brothers (there were six in all) included observing a CIA agent passing foil-wrapped packages of cash to Ahmed Wali Karzai while at dinner in his home. This is the man the CIA considered an “asset”:

…Karzai’s younger half-brother Ahmed Wali, who pulled the strings to most of southern Afghanistan, who stole land, imprisoned people for ransom, appointed key public officials, ran vast drug trafficking networks and private militias, and wielded ISAF like a weapon against people who stood up to him. The inhabitants of three provinces hated him.

Eventually realizing that the Karzai family was little more than an organized crime family, she left the nonprofit she helped found.

She soon launched her own soap-making cooperative in Kandahar with a $25,000 grant from Oprah Winfrey, living with the Afghan people instead of in the American compound. Sleeping with a Kalashnikov rifle next to her bed, she never became inured to the constant bribery, extortion, and humiliation of the corruption that flourished at all levels of the society.

She became an adviser on corruption to the coalition forces and eventually worked for Adm. Michael Mullen when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Knowing corruption first-hand, her book is studded with examples of the indignities that the people who live under a corrupt regime face.

Book cover

Exposed to the everyday corruption of Afghanistan, first with an NGO and then as an entrepreneur, she learned, as she would later explain to the military, that corruption was a force multiplier for the Taliban.

A former Kabul policeman who was an employee in her soap factory related how his brother was manhandled by the local Kandahar police as they shook him down for a bribe. It wasn’t just the bribe that infuriated Nurallah, but the slapping of his brother and the accompanying humiliation. He told the story to Chayes:

“My sacred oath,” he vowed, concluding: “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.”

This from a man who had been very proud of his former occupation as a police officer. Constantly exposed to the systemic corruption at every level of their government, members of the local population became radicalized against their own government, and seeking revenge, they often turn to the Taliban.

To Chayes, this is the major threat posed by the corruption in those nations, like Afghanistan, that we wish to help. We pour money into the country, apparently wiling to ignore the fact that very little of it ever goes to support the people who live there. All of our funding only infuriates the public which realizes, even if we don’t, that it is going into the pockets of their corrupt leaders and not into the infrastructure that could actually help the nation recover. We become as well-hated as the leaders themselves for our actions in enabling and enriching them.

She persuasively claims that the Arab Spring was “a mass uprising against kleptocratic practices,” pointing to Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, and the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, both of whom were notoriously corrupt.

She traveled to Morocco in 2011:

Moroccans told me that what was pushing people over the edge wasn’t just poverty or misfortune in general—it was poverty in combination with acute injustice: the visible, daily contrast between ordinary people’s privations and the ostentatious display of lavish wealth corruptly siphoned off by ruling cliques from what was broadly understood to be public resources.

In Tunisia she heard:

“This isn’t about unemployment. It’s about a mafia running this country.” That was my introduction to Tunisia, courtesy of Hazem Ben Gacem, one of the dynamic young professionals who were flocking to the service of their country in the weeks after Ben Ali’s fall. “It’s about bullying, extortion, public sector bribery. Everyone knew about the corruption, the sick practices. It got to be too much.”

She concludes her work with some interesting policy recommendations that just about broke my heart as they showed how far we have come since this book was written in 2015. Just three years ago we had a president of the highest integrity who ran one of the most ethical administrations we have ever seen. For eight scandal-free years, we had a government that might have taken seriously some of the thoughtful recommendations Chayes makes. She praises our Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—the same one that Donald Trump wants to roll back.

Washington has led the drive to end businesses’ habit of bribing government officials to gain access to markets. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and antibribery conventions modeled on it have revolutionized corporate behavior.

Chayes systematically examines the tools that are available to the intelligence community, the military, financial systems, diplomats, and heads of state. These are thoughtful, smart, and even achievable aims for an honest government. She points out that “U.S. sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea included a provision authorizing their application to officials”:

responsible for, or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption in the Russian Federation, including the expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, bribery, or the facilitation or transfer of the proceeds of corruption to foreign jurisdictions.

Can anyone imagine Trump applying any punishment to a Putin-connected Russian guilty of corruption? When she talks about giving military aid to nations plagued with corruption, she writes:

Guidelines, like those for donor agencies, should direct military contracting officers to study and avoid local security companies or service providers whose beneficial owners are members of corruption networks.

Erik Prince, brother to the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is still around, by the way—and according to the New York Times, still actively selling his services.

Mr. Nader was also in discussions with Mr. Prince, the former head of Blackwater, about a plan to get the Saudis to pay $2 billion to set up a private army to combat Iranian proxy forces in Yemen.

In the book’s appendix, Sarah Chayes provides charts of the flow of money in a healthy patronage system of government and in a criminally corrupt one.

In patronage systems, as in healthy modern governments (p. 212), resources are drawn from the population to the center, but then are largely distributed back downward within the system, in the form of patronage, or else infrastructure, public services, decent salaries for public officials, and so on.

In Afghanistan, the revenue comes not from taxation, as in modern governments, but from foreign donors like the United States, “contracts, natural resources, land extortion, bank fraud, arrest as kidnapping, customs, etc.” In Afghanistan:

the money is moving upward within the system and is largely sent outside Afghanistan altogether [to places like Dubai] …

In return, the government provides free rein (“permission” ) to extract resources, protection from repercussion, and punishment of officials with too much integrity.

As I read that all I could think of was former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired for having too much integrity, and current cabinet members Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, who have been protected by Trump while giving free rein to the fossil fuel industry and others to extract resources. And as Chayes notes in her book, this type of governmental corruption does irreparable damage to the environment in the search for resources to loot.

Thieves of State is an important work three years after publication, not only because it reveals so much that is wrong with our military/diplomatic intervention in trouble spots, but because today, within these 262 pages, we are able to recognize exactly how our current government is operating.

Perhaps GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] could best be understood not as a government at all but as a vertically integrated criminal organization—or a few such loosely structured organizations, allies but rivals, coexisting uneasily—whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of a state but rather extracting resources for personal gain.

Speaking of vertically integrated criminal organizations, Paul Campos, writing for New York Magazine, has suggested that the AP’s blockbuster report supports his contention that the $1.6 million that Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy paid to Shera Bechard was not to buy her silence about their affair, since they never had one, but to obtain a meeting with Donald Trump, for whom he was playing the beard.

Why did he need that meeting? Broidy and his partner George Nader (the same one who met with Erik Prince) had been trying to land a consulting deal with the United Arab Emirates, claiming that he had access to the highest levels of the U.S. government. A few days after the face-to-face meeting with Trump, which occurred on December 2, 2017, the UAE inked a deal with Broidy’s firm worth $600 million.

The AP exposé only strengthens the evidence for my hypothesis: The first payment from Broidy came two days before the meeting that apparently helped him ink a nine-figure deal with a foreign country — a deal based in no small part on his access to, and influence on, Trump. If it’s difficult to imagine Broidy being willing to take the fall for Trump’s affair with Bechard and then paying her a seven-figure sum, it’s much simpler to imagine it simply as a perfectly timed and fantastically profitable bribe.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the only hard evidence for Broidy’s claim that his payoff to Bechard wasn’t actually a straight-up bribe of the president of the United States continues to be Broidy’s own assertions.

Broidy was convicted of bribing public officials in 2009, so he would be operating on familiar territory. If Paul Campos’ speculation is correct, it would represent an example of how the money, in this case $1.6 million, flows up the power structure in exchange for that free rein in dealing with the UAE. And try as I might, I can find very little benefit of the doubt for a man who took an oath of office shortly after agreeing to a $25 million settlement for running a fraudulent university that bore his name.

Sarah Chayes warns that corruption spreads like an odorless gas and will eventually permeate all levels of government, leading to bribery on a local as well as a federal basis. Each time a citizen is forced to pay a bribe to post a letter, or open a bank account, or drive across the country carrying cash, his anger builds. Quietly at first, but leading to a rage that can trigger a rebellion and overturn the government, just as it did during the Arab Spring.

Democrats should heed the advice in Chayes’ work, clean up their own act, and run on a policy of anti-corruption starting now. Even if special counsel Robert Mueller is allowed to complete his work and the result is a strong condemnation of the Trump crime family, and even if there is enough evidence for a criminal indictment of its head, it is unlikely that the investigation will be done in time to have any impact on the midterm elections. Even if it were completed by this summer, it is safe to assume that the complicit GOP would not take any action that would upset the cash cow they have protected since Nov. 9, 2016. We cannot count on Mueller or his investigation to rescue our nation from the criminals that now lead it.

Once again, Democrats will have to clean up the Republican mess, but this time the mess is far more toxic than it has been in the past. We can no longer refuse to look back and instead only focus on the future. This time, a price must be paid.

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