The rapid disintegration of Afghanistan’s security forces in August left casual news observers aghast. How could forces trained and equipped by the world’s most powerful military collapse within days of President Joe Biden’s April withdrawal announcement? The answer lies in a culture of corruption extending from Afghan forces to American military contractors, cracking the foundations of U.S. financed reconstruction efforts. These structural shortcomings expanded, undermining institutional integrity to such an extent that Afghan security forces, described by NPR as having been “held together by duct tape and glue,” were toppled by the Taliban with minimal combat.
A widespread phenomenon hindering the efficacy of the Afghan forces was the “ghost soldier” scam. This refers to the reporting of non-existent personnel by Afghan military leaders. These corrupt commanders lined their pockets with the money allocated by the United States for the ghost soldiers’ salaries. In addition to diverting funds intended to bolster the Afghan forces, this fraud undermined morale of Afghan army recruits and the Afghan people’s support of their security forces. The Afghan people viewed many military and police leaders as prioritizing personal profit over public service. Additionally, the ability of the Afghan forces to appoint qualified leaders was hampered by cronyism, which further undermined the confidence of enlisted fighters and the civilians they were charged with protecting.
While senior leadership of the Afghan security forces profited through the ghost soldier scheme, the Taliban compromised the combat ability of rank-and-file troops and police officers through bribery. Reports of Afghan security forces abandoning U.S. provided military equipment were common. The bribery was not limited to the procurement of military issue weapons, with reports of the Taliban paying Afghan forces to go absent without leave and switch sides. Interestingly, some army deserters told CNN in 2016 that they were not motivated by money, rather by their disenchantment with the Afghan military, saying, “The army let us down, so we had to come to the Taliban, who treat us like guests.”
When not combating criminal activity, the Afghan police forces were frequently committing it. Upon assuming command of the Afghan police in 2019, chief Khoshal Sadat told Reuters how “he had sacked 30 of 34 provincial police chiefs for incompetence or corruption since taking charge, replacing them with young Special Forces officers in his own mould.” Sadat added that by reducing the number of roadside checkpoints manned by the police, he denied corrupt police opportunities to extort money from truckers, who played a vital role in maintaining supply chains throughout the large country.
Bad behavior was not limited to the recipients of U.S. military aid; American service members and contractors in Afghanistan were charged with accepting bribes. In one publicized incident, the owner of an Afghan trucking company conspired with American soldiers to create fake logistics missions and steal fuel. In his book The Broken Contract, Saqib Qureshi explains how private contractors were the ultimate victors of America’s two-decades investment in Afghanistan. Reflecting on the plethora of conversations about America’s withdrawal, Qureshi says, “what is curiously missing from much of the conversation is how this failed war had been extensively outsourced to nontransparent and unaccountable actors.”
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights how non-combat issues such as fraud and corruption can pose a greater threat to military operations than enemy forces. Notably, the aforementioned instances of fraud and corruption underscore the ability of malfeasance to undermine institutional integrity. In the case of Afghanistan, greed contributed to the collapse of the Afghan army and ultimately, the government of President Ashraf Ghani. As the American military incorporates the lessons of the past two decades into its strategic planning, fighting fraud and corruption will hopefully be included in revisions to the Counterinsurgency doctrine. It will be interesting to see if The Broken Contract gets added to the U.S. Military Academy’s Commandant’s reading list.
Seth Harlan is Senior Associate, Market & Regulatory Affairs at Vcheck Intelligence.