Conflict and corruption: Case of Afghanistan, lesson for Nepal

During the height of Maoist conflict, wasn't our situation similar to what is happening in Afghanistan? Is not it time to appraise the integrity of our security forces?

Photo: Wikipedia

Narayan Manandhar

  • Read Time 4 min.

Reuters reported that on August 15, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul with four cars and a helicopter loaded with cash. And he had to leave some money behind as it would not all “fit in”. Ghani, now in the UAE, has denied the report: He simply left Afghanistan to avoid blood-shed and is now considering his return. Obviously, this news will be verified sooner or later but what is overwhelmingly clear is that chaos and confusion left by the departure of the US army from Afghanistan and complete collapse of the Afghan army—Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF)—without putting any effort to resist invading Taliban, is due to one and the only factor: Corruption or the corruption in the Afghan army. With the pull-out of American forces, the Afghan army collapsed like a house of cards.

Corrupt country

There is a two way relationship between conflict and corruption. Conflict breeds corruption and corruption breeds conflict, making it extremely difficult to discern one from the other or the cause from the effect. It is no wonder that Afghanistan—a country with an alphabetical advantage of starting with “A”—comes at the bottom of the league of Corruption Perception Index published annually by an international anti-corruption agency called Transparency International.

In 2020, Afghanistan was listed, with a score of 19 out of 100, at 165th position among the list of 170 countries of the world. It is not just Afghanistan coming at the bottom of the index. Hosts of other countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and others, with a single defining character of “conflict and fragility,” are at the bottom of the index.

From the perspective of size, the Afghan army with 300,000 soldiers could not stand against Taliban numbering around 80,000 fighters. That was a humiliating defeat. More astounding is the fact that $83 billion investment, supply of hardware and military training by the US Army over 20 years, went like a drain in the sand. The difference is between an army that is poorly equipped but highly motivated, and the other with well-equipped but dependent on NATO support, poorly led and riddled with corruption.

Writing for Aljazeera, Marwan Bishara commented: “If you feel useless, just remember USA took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.” In the aftermath of 9/11 and subsequent toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in early 2000, in the annals of corruption studies, corruption during post-war became a hot topic for discussion and debate. It is reported that during its invasion to flush out Al-Qaida members hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan, US had to resort to, not bombing but distributing suitcases full of dollars. Literally, the US corrupted the Taliban to topple them out of the government. This time they corrupted the Afghan army, just to be replaced by the Taliban.

Prof Jeffery Sach wrote in Project Syndicate that only two percent of the aid money given to Afghanistan has gone to the needy public. Clearly, the present catastrophe could have been avoided if the money had been utilized for education, drinking water, and health and improving sanitation. “Twenty years was a long time to give Afghan leaders to plant the seed of civil society, and instead they planted only the seeds of corruption and incompetence,”

Corrupting the Army

Anybody watching video news clippings of Taliban fighters having their time inside the room of the army general could immediately feel the lavishness of the room and smell a degree of corruption that must have gone behind that lavish decoration and refurbishing. The media reported that many of the 300,000 fighting force is made up of “ghost soldiers”, their salaries being pocketed by the commanders. The funds, ammunition and food deliveries supplied to the defense and interior ministries, were stolen and sold on the black market, eventually ending up in the Taliban’s hands. In a way, the US taxpayers were indirectly subsidizing the Taliban.

Corruption has highly demoralized the Afghan army without a sense of national duty and purpose. Aljazeera reported the ANDSF’s attrition rate was 5,000 per month while the recruitment rate was 300 to 500. The widespread desertion and corruption prevented US-trained militaries from emerging as capable forces. The political interference in recruitment and frequent transfer of commanders further eroded the morale of the army.

The state of corruption has gone to such a maddening level that in a national corruption perception survey organized by Afghanistan Integrity Watch in 2020, it is reported that “more than half of citizens believe that corruption levels to be lower in Taliban-controlled areas than in government-controlled areas.” “This is very worrying as it suggests that citizens generally feel that either the government is likely to be more corrupt than the Taliban, or at the very least is less able to control corruption than the Taliban,” said the report.

Sarah Chayes, who became famous after writing a book on corruption in Afghanistan entitled Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, wrote about a disgruntled Afghan civilian fed up with paying bribes to the post-2001 security forces that he wished for the Taliban to come and rid him of this nuisance.

Lessons for Nepal

The opponents of MCC in Nepal may have found some cause to celebrate but things have to be viewed from a different perspective here. It is the corruption in the security forces that causes the state to lose its legitimacy to govern. During the height of Maoist conflict, wasn’t our situation similar to what is happening in Afghanistan? What was our fighting force vis-à-vis the rag-tag army of the Maoists? Or do we continue to rationalize that the then Royal Nepal Army was never deployed to defeat Maoists? Do we really need an army strength of over 100,000 now? Is not it time to appraise the integrity of our security forces (including police)?

The history of corruption has taught us one lesson: If it is the corruption that can prop up a regime then it is again the corruption that could lead to its swift downfall. Clearly, corruption is a double-edged sword. You can kill your enemy as well as get killed by yourself.