Former NPR reporter and current Carnegie Foundation associate Chayes (The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, 2006) offers an alarming account of the role played by acute government corruption in fostering violent extremism.
The systemic corruption in Afghanistan will hardly surprise informed readers, but its extent and enormous adverse impact on American efforts there (and in other failed states) are “remarkably underappreciated.” In her 10 years as a reporter and entrepreneur in Afghanistan, the author found that the government existed only to enrich the ruling elite. Within the carefully structured kleptocracy, money flowed upward via gifts, kickbacks and the purchase of positions. In return, those making payments were granted protection or permission to extract resources. Drawing on her intimate knowledge of Afghan life, Chayes argues convincingly that resentment over flagrant corruption drove many citizens to turn against the government and join the insurgency. At the same time, while pursuing flailing efforts to stem corruption (Chayes was an adviser on the issue), the U.S. passed millions of dollars to President Hamid Karzai (through the CIA), thereby enabling Afghanistan’s kleptocracy. The author meanders considerably between her insightful observations as a reporter, as an NGO leader dedicated to rebuilding Afghanistan and as a participant in fruitless U.S. efforts to halt government corruption. Chayes weaves in many relevant quotations from Machiavelli, Erasmus and other Renaissance “mirror writers” who advised rulers to listen to their subjects and avoid acute public corruption that could destabilize the realm. She also shows how loss of confidence in corrupt rulers prompted the Arab Spring and revolts elsewhere. Much of her material is telling, but many readers will be annoyed by Chayes’ tendency to jump around between countries and between events of the past and present. The author suggests remedies for dealing with acute corruption, noting that the political courage to act is often lacking.
Scattershot but often insightful, disquieting reading for policymakers.