OMLT soldiers and Afghan National Army soldiers walk through a poppy field in Afghanistan

DND photo AR 2008-Z140-07 (from Vo l . 9, No. 1, p.105)

Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) soldiers and Afghan National Army soldiers walk through a poppy field in Afghanistan

Combating Corruption in Afghanistan

by Daniel R. Green

Lieutenant (N), Daniel R. Green, USN, was the ISAF Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs in Kabul, Afghanistan. He previously served as the Tribal and Leadership Engagement Officer for a U.S. Navy unit in Fallujah, Iraq, for six months in 2007, and as the U.S. Department of State Political Officer to the Tarin Kowt Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, in 2005-2006. Lieutenant Green is currently a PhD student in Political Science at George Washington University, and a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

~Social injustice, bullying by military or police, and corruption must be seen as grave weaknesses in the defense of a country, errors that can lead to its downfall and eventually, as our friends are eliminated, to the downfall of the United States.

~ Edward Geary Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars: An American’s   Mission to Southeast Asia (New York: Fordham University Press, 1991), p. 373.

~I believe that a high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity.

~ Former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay <>

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One of the central goals of counter-insurgent forces is to secure the loyalty and support of the population to their government through good governance and positive administration. Official corruption strikes at the heart of this objective, and, if unchecked, can slowly erode the support of the people to the point where they no longer defend the government against insurgent incursions, or, more ominously, join with the insurgents to fight the state. But corruption does not just manifest itself in bribes to government officials; it also takes the form of arbitrary killings, theft, abuse, neglect, and the appropriation of public property for private purposes, among other offenses. In Afghanistan, the struggle against corruption has taken on renewed importance as part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat the insurgency. Even though the Taliban certainly committed many of these same abuses when they were in power, the memories of the Afghan population with respect to this period have been colored by their recent experiences with the Afghan state. Faced with a government that has all-to-frequently ‘turned a blind eye’ to the depredations of warlords, and has done little to stop official corruption, some elements of the Afghan population have begun to reluctantly turn to the Taliban as a source of justice, and as a means of addressing past wrongs. But any anti-corruption effort must recognize that corruption is not simply a law enforcement activity, but it has political, economic, and tribal aspects to it that must simultaneously be addressed. The key challenge for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in implementing an anti-corruption plan is striking a balance between the limiting nature of Afghan sovereignty and their uncertain commitment to anti-corruption efforts, and our responsibilities to the Afghan people as their military and diplomatic partner. This article will set forth several pragmatic solutions for addressing the corruption challenge of Afghanistan, informed by our experiences there, and enriched by the best practices of previous counter-insurgency efforts.

Map of Afghan Tribal Distribution

17 Wing Publishing Office

Map of Afghan Tribal Distribution

What is Corruption?

In many developing countries where government administration and rule of law is weak and political coalitions are often patronage based and centered on ethnic, tribal, or sectarian identity, it is not uncommon for a certain level of corruption to exist, and for it to be generally accepted by society. Because business and political relationships in these countries are typically governed by human connections where power is personal, and there has not yet been a transition to impersonal bureaucratic processes, bribes are a means by which people get things done. In a strange way, it is a fee for service. This small-scale corruption in the service of a burgeoning state focused upon service delivery to the population is viewed as an appropriate cost when most residents are not typically taxed, and when revenue sources for the government are usually from high value resources, such as oil, or from outside donors, such as international organizations. But this ‘street level bureaucracy’ that touches the daily lives of citizens, such as paying a bribe for a driver’s license, stands in marked contrast with the large-scale graft of multimillion dollar contracts, and the unaccountable violence that states sometimes perpetrate against their own populations. In these respects, corruption takes on a more invidious tone where the basic human rights of the community are habitually violated, and the collective good is harmed through shoddy, incomplete, and dangerous work that is often significantly overpriced. The ability of the population to hold officials accountable in these situations is severely limited because the components of government that would typically be appealed to in confronting these problems, such as the judiciary and representative bodies, are either embryonic or non-existent, or they have become compromised. In these kinds of situations, corruption is no longer part of simply ‘getting things done’ and doing the odd favor for someone, it has now transitioned to a wholly different level where the interests of a minority faction have become, not only diametrically opposed to the public good, but have indeed become detrimental to the public good. When situations have reached this level, where the state is no longer allied with the people but arrayed against it, corruption has become a threat to the continued survival of the government, and it must be actively confronted.

While the weakness of the state can create a culture of corruption, in many respects, however, it is its strength that most contributes to the problem. In many countries that have adopted autarkic, protectionist, or interventionist economic policies where the state plays an active role in the managing of the private economy, asymmetries exist between market rates for goods and services, and artificial prices established by the government. Because the difference between the market rate and the government rate is often so pronounced, an underground ‘black market’ exists that is beyond the control of the state, and it creates opportunities for corruption because it is unregulated. It is not uncommon for official corruption to become enmeshed in these markets because of their need for protection from state regulation, as well as for government officials to take advantage of these market rates to sell ostensibly state-owned goods. While many of these policies have been adopted in the service of bolstering indigenous business enterprises, they are also pursued for domestic political reasons. In many developing states, for example, the government plays an active role in setting the prices for basic commodities and foodstuffs as part of a patronage-based governance strategy. Unlike many first world political parties that are often based upon philosophical differences, many of the parties in the developing world exist to facilitate jobs for their members, and to increase government largesse. These political systems reinforce patron-client relationships where one’s ability to dispense favors is directly related to the power they acquire in politics.

However much corruption is a part of daily life in the developing world, there are types of corruption that are particularly threatening to a government trying to fight an insurgency that must be reduced or eliminated. Any corruption that calls into question the basic capacity of the state to meet the needs of the people, and is seen as anathema to their basic rights and interests, is an unacceptable level of corruption. The key aspect of what is and is not ‘acceptable’ corruption has everything to do with the perception of the population.1The views of the people are the surest indicator of what is and is not appropriate when it comes to the behavior of public officials. Discerning, aggregating, and acting upon these views will ensure that the people are not divided against their government and align with the insurgency.

How Did Corruption Get so Bad?

In the course of supporting the Government of Afghanistan, U.S. military units, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and District Support Teams have often unwittingly fostered corruption through their hiring practices, contracting methods, and partnership strategies. It was not uncommon, during the early years of PRTs, for example, for Coalition Forces to turn to local government officials, interpreters, and Afghan Security Forces for recommendations with respect to development projects, contractors, and building locations. This was often done quite deliberately by PRT officials because it was viewed as supporting the Government of Afghanistan, and because these employees and officials often knew the local communities better than a given Provincial Reconstruction Team. Additionally, there was a great amount of pressure to initiate development projects in the early years of the war, which placed a premium on speed and completion versus consultation and partnership. One of the unfortunate side effects of this approach was that, all-too-often, government officials and ‘local hires’ directed the business to their tribe and supporters, or took it themselves and pocketed the proceeds, or ‘got a cut’ by acting as a middleman. While these practices were not necessarily detrimental to anti-corruption efforts, the fact that most contracts tended to be ‘captured’ by these officials, and did not get widely circulated among the population created a perception of PRT bias and led to inflated prices, due to an artificially constricted contractor pool. Additionally, there was a strongly-held view among many U.S. officials that corruption, or, at least, low-level corruption, was simply the Afghan way of doing business, and was an ‘internal’ government problem in which U.S. forces should not or could not interfere. These views generally manifested themselves into an attitude that there was an ‘acceptable level of corruption’ that the Coalition Forces could tolerate. Furthermore, because PRTs were often under-resourced and unable to effectively monitor government behavior and U.S. combat units were mostly involved in security operations, official corruption went unreported, unchecked, and unknown. In the interest of ‘getting the job done,’ units often turned to the easy solution versus the right solution, although this was not always apparent at the time, and focused upon the expediency of getting a project finished versus spending the required time consulting with local communities, and reaching beyond official government channels and interpreters for contractors.

Our early strategy of partnering with warlords often proved disastrous to combating corruption, because in addition to monopolizing contracts from the local PRT and maneuver units, they also committed grievous human rights violations and tended to prey upon the local population. Additionally, because there was no local way to check their power, either through an active judiciary, or through a representative body, they also tended to use money and equipment from the central government for their own private benefit. Because the security forces of many of these warlords became legitimate following the collapse of the Taliban, such as by virtue of becoming the local Afghan National Police Force, for example, their actions and predatory behavior upon the population had the imprimatur of government sanction which further developed the view among the people that these actions were official. Many of these relationships became even more important when the Taliban’s presence increased in 2006, deepening our reliance upon these same abusive forces, when the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was still inadequate. Even if a member of the community wanted to move against official corruption, or sought to confront these warlords, it was largely impossible because of the threat of violence from that same warlord. It also became customary among U.S. government officials to ‘turn a blind eye’ to ‘ghost’police officers on payrolls, because their ‘pay’ was often used as either an operating fund for Afghan police, or covered unanticipated costs, such as going on missions with the U.S. military. While great strides have been made to address these and many other issues, these various practices created a general tolerance for corruption among U.S. officials because it was often seen as addressing underlying weaknesses of the Afghan state, or were in the furtherance of other U.S. goals. Additionally, our ‘hands off’ view and surface-level understanding of the human terrain only served to encourage a culture of corruption, and frequent rotations among units caused efforts to fight it to ‘fall between the cracks.’

Road pavement in Afghanistan

Photo by Daniel R. Green

Road pavement in Afghanistan

While certain practices of the Coalition Forces and early partnering strategies encouraged corruption, the political structures of local government in Afghanistan have also fostered its growth and limited the ability of the people to confront it in an effective manner. Afghanistan’s ‘democracy deficit’ at the provincial and district level inhibits the creation of a dynamic government accountable to its people, and able to address the corruption challenge in a comprehensive manner. Because provincial officials are appointed by the central government, and are thus indirectly accountable to the people, and often lack direct budget authority and the ability to ‘hire and fire’ local officials, they are ever-mindful of maintaining political connections in Kabul, and do not have to be overly concerned with local sentiment. Additionally, local officials who might be focused upon combating corruption usually find accountability mechanisms weak due to an over-centralization of government whereby the Provincial Council, for example, does not review directorate budgets, and governors lack the power to fire the heads of these same departments. Because the people are unable to hold corrupt officials accountable, outside of utilizing contacts in Kabul that most communities lack, they often turn to the Taliban to address injustices, or to right the balance of accountability at the local level. Furthermore, this system of government encourages corruption because accountability and responsibility are disconnected, and, lacking a viable judiciary and political party system, local residents have no realistic way of addressing complaints. In this gap between garnering the disapproval of officials in Kabul, and with it the fear of getting fired, as well as the ability of local residents to actually hold leaders accountable, presents a huge opportunity for corruption to take place with few, if any, consequences. Additionally, because the central government of Afghanistan is reluctant to take a stand against corrupt officials, and because the president often pardons them and puts them back in to office, it can be very demoralizing to anti-corruption advocates, and it only serves to embolden corrupt officials. How then can we contend with corruption in a serious way when informed by how our own behavior has often fostered it in Afghanistan?

A Holistic Approach to Fighting Corruption

With this history in mind, and with a basic understanding of the limits to mounting a successful anti-corruption effort, it is essential that we adjust our behavior to reduce or remove opportunities for official corruption, and bolster the government’s capacity to confront it, while enlisting the population in our efforts, and prompting the Afghan Government to move decisively against it. In general, our strategy should have six aspects to it that stress transparency, monitoring, reporting, and accountability. In order to be effective, we should consider the following strategies: (1) advertise and publicize; (2) report and investigate; (3) understand and leverage the human terrain; (4) embed with government and security forces; (5) empower Afghan institutions, and (6) enlist the population. Corruption opportunities exist wherever the government buys, sells, or regulates something, and it is exacerbated when accountability is weak and transparency is limited. But corruption is not just about taking a bribe or stealing a public good. It is also the choice of not enforcing the law, due to tribal connections, or to governing in a biased manner that excludes certain groups. It is as much a negative behavior against something as it is a positive behavior in favor of something.

Changing Our Behavior

The first adjustment we must make to our behavior is to broaden the number and types of local contractors we use when conducting development and reconstruction work. While it is still advisable to share some contracting opportunities with our local allies, it is essential that we reach beyond the confines of Afghan officials and local employees, and partner with communities in as broad a manner as possible. If we actively collaborate with local villages and rely upon contractors from those areas, we will have broadened the opportunity for development work in the area, and reduced the public perception that the PRT's business only goes to privileged tribes and personalities. Additionally, it will likely reduce the prices for development work as the potential pool of contractors widens. If this approach is supplemented by advertising for bids over local television and radio stations, this will also increase the transparency of the PRT's operations and encourage broader participation by the community. Additionally, smaller scale opportunities to engage with communities, such as working with local shuras and jirgas, will empower the population to actively participate in project development and implementation. Furthermore, if the community contributes some portion of the money for the project as a means for them to have a stake in its completion, this practice will inevitably lead to lower prices along with greater long-term sustainability.

Windmill construction in Afghanistan

Photo by Daniel R. Green

Windmill construction in Afghanistan

Utilizing Representative Bodies and the Media

Because government accountability mechanisms are incomplete at the local level, or may have been undermined, it is imperative that opportunities be created for officials and the community to compel honesty from their government. One method of doing this is for local officials to give presentations to representative bodies such as jirgas, shuras, and Provincial Councils with respect to their activities. This can be facilitated by the PRT and Coalition Forces by providing rides to the officials, and by privately encouraging them to attend. These sessions should then be reported on by local radio and television stations, where they exist, to bring public pressure to bear upon these officials to give a full accounting of their activities. A key aspect of this approach is to standardize these reports and to create the expectation that all public officials must address community forums on a regular basis, or risk being embarrassed publically or removed from office. Because the commitment of the Government of Afghanistan to effective anti-corruption is weak, it is essential that corrupt officials be so thoroughly marginalized through public opprobrium that the government is all but compelled to remove the official. This kind of work, of using public opinion in orchestrated settings to bring corrupt behaviors to light can be fraught with risk, but the benefits of enlisting community representatives in this kind of work is invaluable to giving Afghans the sense that they are in control of their own communities and destinies.

U.S. Infantry Regiment Commander receives some parting advice from Commander TF Kandahar upon the completion of the transfer of authority ceremony

DND photo IS 2011-1034-16

U.S. Infantry Regiment Commander receives some parting advice from Commander TF Kandahar upon the completion of the transfer of authority ceremony

Dedicating Staff to Fight Corruption

While using Afghan institutions, such as representative bodies and the media to check corruption can mitigate some abuses, absent a legal ability to compel compliance and to investigate abuses, there is only so far that public opinion and moral authority can go to ‘reining in’ recalcitrant officials. In these situations, it is imperative that a viable and effective judiciary and prosecutorial capability be created and supported to pursue charges against corrupt officials. Coalition Forces also need to dedicate staff in their intelligence, civil affairs, and legal sections to work against corruption ‘full time.’ Depending upon the politics of an area, it may be advisable to start on smaller scale corruption first, building a body of experience among Afghan staff, and learning to deal with the inevitable attempts to intimidate them. These crucial first lessons will be vital as corruption cases ‘move up the political chain’ to more powerful officials with connections in Kabul. In these situations, where the threat of violence from these officials or ‘suspicious’ run-ins with the Taliban may take place, local anti-corruption officials and their family members will need ‘around-the-clock’ protection and political ‘top cover’ in Kabul. It is essential that local anti-corruption efforts be known by the U.S. Embassy or higher military headquarters, so they can be prepared to mitigate any efforts in the Afghan Government to thwart anti-corruption cases. These prosecutorial efforts will need to be sustained, imaginative, and well protected, because corrupt officials are not without resources that will be brought to bear on those who threaten their prerogatives. We are seeking to move beyond a culture of impunity to a culture of law. It does not come quickly, but it can never start if we do not make the effort.

Active Partnering

Regardless of how beneficial in-depth training, frequent visits from mentors, personal examples, modern equipment, and other attempts to professionalize members of the Afghan Government are in helping them resist corruption, there is no greater antidote to corruption than actively partnering with them, and living with them continuously. By actively mentoring Afghan civil, police, and military officials, one gains a depth of understanding of who is genuinely corrupt, and who is dedicated to following the law. Additionally, through one’s presence and close observation, one may be able to stop corruption and serve as check upon it, because the local population can appeal to mentors to stop abusive behavior. At many police checkpoints, for example, it is not uncommon for local police to exact a bribe from local villagers, and to abuse those they dislike. One possible way of mitigating this abuse is to co-locate a coalition or an Afghan Army unit at the same checkpoint to monitor behavior and to serve as recourse to residents if they are abused. Additionally, if Afghan officials know mentors are required to report abuses, they will be less likely to commit them. However, this may prompt them to be more secretive. In parts of government administration that require a certain level of literacy, such as the processing of cases for adjudication, calculating budgets, and hearing the petitions of villagers, it may be helpful for a member of the coalition to assume responsibility for some component of this process as a way of reducing abuses against illiterate villagers. Serving as advocates for the illiterate, weak, poor, and dispossessed is a crucial function for reducing official corruption. During the Philippine Government’s successful campaign against the Huk Communist insurgency in the 1950s, for example, the government assigned army lawyers to represent poor tenant farmers against large land holders.2 Active partnering and forceful advocacy of the interests of the weak will do much to reduce corruption opportunities for government officials. By serving as a check on the more abusive elements of the Afghan government, and by giving the people an opportunity to hold these same officials accountable through your presence, we will have done much to eliminate the forms of local corruption that alienate people most.

Soldier seated with local Iraqi

DoD photo by Matthew Leistikow

Soldier seated with local Iraqi

Enlisting the Population

No matter how much we are actively engaged in the community and seek to understand the human terrain of Afghanistan, the Afghan people know more about who is involved in corruption and its scope than we will ever know.3 If we can enlist the ‘eyes and ears’ of the population in our anti-corruption efforts, we will go a long way towards denying the Taliban a source of grievance upon which they can capitalize. One possible way of doing this would be to create an anonymous reporting system whereby the people could regularly inform on tribal and government officials who abuse their authority. The United Kingdom experimented with this approach in Helmand Province by having an anonymous telephone number made available to people to report abuses. Another approach is one successfully used by the Philippines in the 1950s in their conflict with the Huk Communist insurgency. Philippines President Magsaysay inaugurated a system of postcards whereby people could report abuses of authority directly to him in his effort to provide positive government to his people. His staff would then investigate the claims and take prompt action, thus putting all government officials on watch by never knowing who would inform on them. This strategy could be adapted to Afghanistan by creating an anonymous reporting system, such as a telephone number and a postcard reporting system. For the postcard system to work they would have to be distributed throughout an area at bazaars, mosques, government buildings, and so on, and, when completed, anonymously dropped off at boxes erected at area mosques, or directly given to a Coalition Forces member. The hope is that, because most Afghans regularly attend a mosque, their pattern of life of going to the mosque to pray would not identify them as ‘trouble makers’ and thereby make them vulnerable to reprisals. Because the population is mostly illiterate, each postcard could have a series of symbols indicating various abuses of authority or corruption, such as a picture of a hand with money in it for bribery, and colors for each checkpoint where a local could indicate where an abuse had taken place. This process must be effective and produce results and the Coalition Forces must play a central role in its operations if we hope to maintain the support of the people.

United States Army 'C' Company commander addresses local Afghan village elders and leaders

DND photo IS 2011-1018-10

United States Army 'C' Company Commander addresses local Afghan village elders and leaders

Building the Afghan State

Local government officials in Afghanistan face a number of challenges in providing communities the leadership, governance, service delivery, and justice they desire. Threats from the Taliban complicate their work and exacerbate temptations for corruption by creating an atmosphere of illegality and instability where short term strategies of survival prevail. Additionally, low salaries, insufficient training, poor leadership, and a predominantly-illiterate staff often make the temptations of corruption too difficult to resist. The fact that most local government is not directly accountable to the people they are ostensibly charged with serving only reduces the incentives for honest and positive administration. Even with all these challenges, efforts must be undertaken at the local level to improve the administration of civil government. While the central government’s Independent Directorate for Local Governance usually removes corrupt officials, and has also undertaken a number of capacity building projects for civil servants, local initiatives must also be undertaken to build the Afghan state. An active literacy program along with civil service training from the Afghan Civil Service Institute that is bolstered by mentoring by Coalition Forces will do wonders to mitigate the corruption problem. Literacy is not just about imparting the ability to read, but is also part of a cultural change for workers whereby they grow to understand, appreciate, and internalize modern administrative practices that will reduce corruption opportunities. Part of this training should also include a public education campaign for the community, so that they know what they can expect from their government, what practices are unacceptable from public officials, and where to go to report abusive practices. Part of this effort should also include the creation of an ethos of public service buttressed by a code of behavior that is posted throughout government facilities, and is known by the public. While adjusting civil service pay can only realistically be done by the central government, uncovering ‘ghost workers’ and reducing corruption in general can help uncover unknown budget resources that can temporarily bolster salaries. Building and modernizing local government is not a quick process and it does not just entail constructing public buildings, appointing officials, and equipping them to do their jobs. It is also a process of affecting a cultural change among officials, principally through robust literacy and training programs, which sees serving the public good as a paramount duty, and private gain as inimical to the public interest.

Soldier shaking the hand of an Afghan girl

DND photo IS2011-1026-07

Soldier shaking the hand of an Afghan girl


Official corruption strikes at the heart of efforts by indigenous governments and counter-insurgent forces to promote good governance and positive administration as part of a strategy to secure the loyalty of a population to their government. If we adopt a multi-pronged approach to anti-corruption by changing our behavior, partnering with communities, utilizing representative bodies and the media, dedicating staff to fight corruption, actively mentoring the Afghans, enlisting the population in our efforts, and building the Afghan state, we will have effectively dealt with a substantial portion of the corruption challenge in Afghanistan. If we undertake this program informed by our past experiences, sensitive to the needs of the population, and consistently focused upon serving the public good and making sure we try to instill an ‘unwavering sense of morality’ in Afghanistan’s public servants, we will have removed a central source of grievance the Taliban use against the government.4 While our efforts will be crucial to helping like-minded Afghans confront corruption and government abuse, it is only by empowering them and helping the community place honest officials in positions of authority that we will be able to prevail in the long run.


  1. Any corruption is unacceptable, and it must be confronted by NATO/ISAF forces. The key to effectively combating it in Afghanistan, however, is by determining how the community perceives it. We also have to recognize that the cumulative effect of small bribes can also cause systemic problems and so will also need to be addressed. We must proceed carefully when trying to establish an anti-corruption program where the threat of retaliation from those who benefit from corruption is real.
  2. See Edward Geary Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia (New York: Fordham University Press, 1991).
  3. An earlier version of this paragraph was published in “Defeating the Taliban’s Political Program,” Armed Forces Journal (November 2009), pp. 18-21, 36-37.
  4. This quotation is taken from Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay ( “I believe that a high and unwavering sense of morality should pervade all spheres of governmental activity.”