Thinking Aloud: “Thieves of State”

July 8, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes, who was formerly affiliated with the US military and spent 10 years in Afghanistan.  Simple yet extraordinarily powerful, Thieves of State should be required reading for anyone making foreign policy today.

The crux of Chayes’s book is one astonishing simple principle: especially in the last 15 years, some governments have become so corrupt that they are no longer governments.  Instead, they operate like organized crime syndicates.  Instead of money flowing downward from the government, as in a standard patronage system, money flows upwards as it is extracted from the populace by corrupt officials, ultimately accruing to the highest members of government.

Chayes’s realization came when she was serving with the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.

There, she also observed the flipside of a mafia-like government: pushback against anticorruption campaigns.  When the US tried to bring up the issue of corruption to President Karzai, who was, of course, the kingpin of the arrangement, Karzai would often throw a tantrum and refuse to talk to any Americans for days.  When the US tried to kick off an anticorruption campaign by arresting a low-level official, Karzai personally intervened to see the man released and the campaign shut down.  In return for protection money, the highest echelons of the Afghan government had stepped in to protect “their” people—the trademark of Mafiosi.  Moreover, high and low, Afghan “partners” sought time and again to prevent Americans from meeting directly with other Afghans in a bid to prevent the Americans from finding out just what was going on.

Corruption in Afghanistan has been disastrous for the country.  Chayes observed firsthand the way it made Afghans turn against the government.  One particular example stopped Chayes in her tracks: one of her Afghan friends, a former police officer himself, was so fed up after being shaken down by fellow police officers that he told Chayes that in the future, if he saw men planting an IED, he wouldn’t report it.  The US is also implicated: it is seen by the Afghan people as being responsible for foisting the corrupt Afghan government on the Afghan people.  Corruption in Afghanistan has directly led to increased religious radicalism, as ordinary people, squeezed by corruption, turn to the only thing they think can counter corruption: the harsh morality of religion.

Modern Afghanistan is not the only instance of corruption fueling religious radicalism.  Chayes discusses in depth examples from Nigeria, Tunisia and Egypt to Uzbekistan.  All reflect the same patterns of a Mafia-like kleptocracy; all have huge problems with religious radicalism.  And the phenomenon is not new: Chayes portrays the Protestant Reformation as a violent, radical reaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church.  Even though that’s not the way the Reformation is usually discussed, Chayes’s argument completely convinced me.

Towards the end of the book, Chayes offers a number of measures to be used to counter corruption, from the international to the local level.  Her ideas are far too comprehensive for me to summarize here, so you’ll have to read the book. 🙂

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