The 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), published this week, finds Afghanistan at absolute rock bottom, sharing this dismal place with North Korea and Somalia. Despite the flow to Afghanistan over the last decade of hundreds of billions of dollars of Western – mostly American – economic and military aid, this country is a rotten cesspool of corruption.
There is a brutal message here for the architects of Western geo-political strategy in general and for those most responsible for the Afghan debacle in particular. It is a message that should have been learned in Iraq, which is a country that does only modestly better than Afghanistan in the graft rankings today. Despite all the diverse experiences of decades, the harsh fact is that Western powers have a zero success rate in establishing decent governance in poor countries embroiled in conflict that have no history of democratic institutions.
More specifically, the bitter truth is that the U.S. has had dual enemies for years in Afghanistan: the Taliban and their allies of course, but also “our friends” headed by President Karzai and his cronies. “Our friends” have used our cash to expand their influence in order to steal ever larger sums that should have gone into strengthening security, building education and other public basic services, and establishing governance institutions that Afghans could trust.
In an article about President Karzai in The New York Times magazine in August 2009, reporter Elizabeth Rubin interviewed one of his political opponents Ashaf Ghani, who ran in the presidential election that month. Said Ghani: “I judge a president by his record and his company. We ranked 117 on Transparency International in 2005. Now we rank 176, the fifth most corrupt country on earth. It happened on his watch.”
Now, as noted at the start of this article, Afghanistan is at rock bottom – it has been falling in terms of its global ranking and its score in the CPI for years. As it has done so, so there has been mounting media reporting on major incidences of corruption in the country. Major western leaders have publicly lamented the situation. But, it just gets worse and worse. The victims are the people of Afghanistan.
Transparency International, the leading global anti-corruption organization, has been publishing the CPI on an annual basis since 1995, measuring perceptions of the abuse of public office for personal gain. Never before has Afghanistan held the lowest spot, although it has come quite close in the past. The new CPI embraces 176 countries and is developed on the basis of an analysis of a series of independent surveys. The ranking of a country depends on its score in a range of scores from 1 to 100. Sharing the top place, indicating almost totally free of corruption, is Finland, Sweden and New Zealand with each enjoying a 90 point score, while the U.K. and the U.S. rank 17th and 19th respectively with scores of 73 and 74. By contrast, the three countries at place 174 with the very lowest ranking have a score of just 8, while Iraq does only modestly better in position 169 with a score of 18.
Governments of countries that do very badly in the CPI lack public trust and respect. Mostly, the scale of human rights abuse and the level of violence in these countries is very high. Moreover, the police and judiciary tend to be tools of the thoroughly corrupt national and local political leaders, so assuring these rogues of impunity before the law, making ordinary citizens vulnerable to extortion by public officials and denying them even a modicum of justice.
The U.S. and its Western allies can claim in Afghanistan that they destroyed one rogue regime, but they have failed to pave the way for even the remotest prospect of a new regime being established that is likely to be responsive to the needs and the will of the vast majority of the country’s citizens. The failure of the U.S., in particular, to provide Afghan citizens with even a modest hope of more honest government in years to come is the tragic U.S. legacy.
At their annual membership meeting recently in Brasilia, Brazil, the representatives of the 100 national organizations that constitute the Transparency International movement debated the plight of the Afghan people. These global corruption fighters approved a resolution that called on the U.S. and the international community, “to move beyond business as usual and work with the government and civil society with a sense of urgency” to address the corruption that plagues so much of the public sector across the country.
But it may well be too late. There is very little that the U.S. military, let alone Western economic aid donors, can do to challenge the governmental abuse in the period to the scheduled April 2014 Afghan elections. The scale of theft of government funds by Afghan officials in the immediate period ahead could well rise as these politicians and civil servants and Afghan military officers seek to grab everything they can lay their hands on before the elections and before their U.S. military protectors withdraw from the country, as is scheduled to happen in 2014.
What we can hope for and indeed what we should push for, is a full public debate on what has gone wrong. Our starting point should be on the curse of corruption. As staggeringly large sums of cash supplied by U.S. and other Western taxpayers have simply disappeared into the private accounts of government officials in Afghanistan (and earlier in this decade in Iraq), so a full public accounting is in order. What did all the aid achieve? Who stole the money and where did it go? And, how can we get some of these funds back?
More fundamentally, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, so bluntly told in their CPI scores, need to be learned before still more Western billions are lavished on governments in poor, conflict- embroiled nations. Corruption is rampant in Iraq and the political leadership there is proving to be a most unreliable partner to the U.S., despite all that Americans have sacrificed in that country. In Afghanistan, the prospects now are for years to come of warring factions striving, yet again at the expense of the people, to grab power and wealth for themselves and, no doubt, blaming the U.S. for the country’s troubles.