The recent removal of Ukraine’s defense minister reminds us of an important, if uncomfortable, reality—Ukraine has a corruption problem. Although it seems prosaic in comparison to the profile in courage that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embodied since the Russian invasion, he was originally elected as an anti-corruption reformer. The various exigencies of the invasion have understandably drawn Zelenskyy’s attention elsewhere, but it would be a mistake to not hold him and the Ukrainian government to task for delivering on the needed reforms. It would also be a mistake to conflate the Ukrainians’ well-earned status as noble warriors for a righteous cause with nobility in the whole; righteousness and corruption can coexist. These are mistakes that the United States made in Afghanistan, an experience which shows the existential danger of repeating them in Ukraine.
Twenty Years of Lessons from Afghanistan
While not the singular cause of the strategic failure in Afghanistan, the kleptocratic character of the Kabul government was at least a major contributor. Corruption was the defining feature of Afghan ministries, reducing effectiveness in the provision of essential services as well as causing a loss of legitimacy at the local level, the traditional locus of political power in Afghanistan. This loss of legitimacy created influence space for the Taliban to exploit as an alternative governing solution for an Afghan polity that had been suffering under forty years of near-constant conflict and just simply wanted a little bit of security and justice. Given that the Taliban had their own legitimacy challenges, their ascension at the expense of the Kabul government was more an indictment of Kabul than a credit to the Taliban. Moreover, corruption in the Kabul government created an Afghan army that was almost entirely dependent on US firepower, despite almost two decades’ and several hundred billion dollars’ worth of security sector assistance. When the firepower left with the US withdrawal, the residually hollow Afghan army proved impotent in the face of a determined, countrywide Taliban assault that had been gathering strength in the rural areas for several years.
Like in Ukraine, the potential corruption problems in Afghanistan were known from the beginning, but political and military expediency precluded them from being addressed. Although the first Afghan president to take office after the 2001 US-led invasion, Hamid Karzai, was invested with executive powers of the US presidential mold, he ruled in a way befitting his experience as a tribal warlord, exchanging power through patronage networks rather than through democratic mechanisms. Participants in these patronage networks included the Northern Alliance warlords, who brought their illicit revenue-generating practices to the government with their assumption of various Afghan ministries. If the United States and its NATO partners were concerned about these practices and their negative implications, there was not much they could do since the United States lacked the force structure to disarm the Northern Alliance militias, and the warlords’ placement in the Afghan government was a return on the Faustian bargain for their support to Operation Enduring Freedom.
Despite the installation of a US-style, strong central government in a place that had never really had one, the administration of President George W. Bush did not commit to a proper nation-building effort in Afghanistan. This lack of commitment, coupled with the migration of the Global War on Terrorism to Iraq, resigned Afghanistan to economy-of-force status for the rest of Bush’s time in office. By the time Barack Obama assumed the US presidency and adjusted course in Afghanistan, Karzai’s patronage practices had metastasized into outright corruption, with the Kabul government becoming a full-on kleptocracy.
Although well-intentioned, Obama’s surge of resources in December 2009 to fix Afghan security, governance, and economic and social development proved to be an accelerant to the smoldering embers of corruption in Afghanistan. Corruption requires money to flourish, and the United States brought a lot in—much more than had propped up Karzai’s patronage networks over the preceding seven years. Additionally, the eighteen-month time limitation placed on the resources pressured the US executive agencies—primarily the Departments of Defense and State, as well as the United States Agency for International Development—to spend recklessly in Afghanistan, with little consideration for risk analysis in program designs. Progress was measured as spending, not in how a particular program’s measurable outputs supported the overall strategy.
Countering corruption in Afghanistan was itself a program, but lack of capacity at the US embassy, DoD disinterest in assuming program operating responsibilities, and reliance on corrupt Afghan ministries for program delivery all combined to ensure the program’s ineffectiveness. This indicated an overall lack of political will on the part of the United States to counter corruption, a deficiency that the Afghans matched. Although Karzai’s successor, Ashraf Ghani, proved to be a better partner and more committed to democratic processes, Afghan ministerial corruption was far too entrenched by the time he took office for him to realistically address on his own.
The programs that the Obama administration had surged into Afghanistan remained after the United States and NATO reduced their force structure with the transition from the International Security Assistance Force to the Resolute Support Mission at the end of 2014. This reduction significantly constrained what little monitoring and evaluation was being performed on the programs, which invited even more corruption. In order to stay ahead of this potentially fatal negative reinforcement loop, several US executive agencies and international donors experimented with direct assistance to their partnered Afghan ministries, which would have enabled the Afghans to budget donor monies against their own programming. Unfortunately, the direct assistance schemes did not incorporate best practices for risk analysis (only demonstrably reliable ministries or subministries should have been allowed to budget on their own) or conditionality—the threat of pulling monies if certain anti- or counter-corruption benchmarks were not met.
Those Who Cannot Learn from History . . .
Direct assistance is basically what is occurring in Ukraine, with similar pathologies to Afghanistan that may allow corruption to grow unchecked. Much like the reckless spending of the Obama administration’s surge, the United States and NATO are rushing arms and material assistance into Ukraine with less-than-ideal oversight and end-use monitoring. While speed and volume of these deliveries are probably acceptable measures of effectiveness for what the Ukrainians need on the battlefield, they aggravate what the coalition will need to stay intact and what domestic audiences in the United States and other NATO countries will need to continue to support the assistance effort.
The overwhelming complexity of the corruption problem in Afghanistan—and how it played out over time—suggests that there is only a narrow window of opportunity to solve the problem. Moreover, Ukraine and its sponsors have not yet had to address postconflict reconstruction and demining, which promise to bring in even more money, material assistance, and corruption potential (with the warm glow of an anticipated Ukrainian victory perhaps causing donors to turn even more of a blind eye than they already do). As such, the United States and NATO need to learn the lessons from corruption in Afghanistan and pay attention to the current indicators and warnings in Ukraine.
Notwithstanding the fact that the lessons were not applied in stride in the Afghanistan experience, they were very clearly, completely, and conveniently identified by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the primary auditing authority for the programs brought in by and succeeding the Obama administration’s surge. SIGAR auditors and field personnel followed all of the money and assessed the programs—to include where corruption manifested—to identify strategic effect and whether legislative intent was being met. SIGAR’s findings and recommendations were published publicly in a series of quarterly and lessons-learned reports, with US executive agencies having a statutory responsibility to implement corrective actions in response. Their routine failure to do so (and Congress’s failure to enforce said implementation) is a failure of their parts of the oversight exchange, not SIGAR’s.
In the context of the corruption risk that may be repeated from the Afghanistan experience, the actual SIGAR (the position is eponymous with the organization)—the Honorable John Sopko—has called for a special inspector general to be appointed for Ukraine assistance. Sopko no doubt knows that a repeat of the Afghanistan pattern is not inevitable in Ukraine, but also that the United States, NATO, and the international donor community should perhaps not be wholly trusted to avoid it. There needs to be a strong external oversight agent, empowered with all the authorities of the Inspector General Act of 1978 and SIGAR’s enabling legislation, to coordinate efforts, follow the money in Ukraine, assess the programs, and, most importantly, help the coalition leaders—including Zelenskyy—to find corruption and ruthlessly stamp it out. If history is a guide, failure to do so will result in strategic failure.
We are at the end of the beginning in Ukraine. The time is now to address the corruption problem through the proven special inspector general model. It is unlikely that there will be another opportunity.
Colonel Patrick Sullivan, PhD, is the director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. His doctoral work focused on how oversight of military operations can potentially improve strategic outcomes.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Adrian Greenwood, US Army