When the militants of Islamic State swept across Iraq last June, they numbered no more than 12,000 and they faced a U.S.-trained, U.S.-equipped Iraqi army that boasted some 200,000 troops.
And yet it was the Iraqi army that collapsed.
What happened? It was more than simply incompetence among Iraqi generals and ethnic tensions among the ranks. The hidden factor that gave Islamic State its victory was Iraq's rampant corruption. The Baghdad government's army had 200,000 troops on paper, but many were “ghost soldiers,” fictional troops whose wages went into their officers' pockets. The unfortunate troops who showed up often lacked equipment and ammunition because their officers had sold it on the black market.
“I told the Americans, don't give any weapons through the army — not even one piece — because corruption is everywhere, and you will not see any of it,” Col. Shaaban al-Obeidi of Iraq's internal security forces told The New York Times this month. “Our people will steal it.”
We often look at corruption as a secondary issue in international affairs: as a moral problem that allows Third World governments to steal from their people and gets in the way of equitable economic development.
But the lesson of the collapse of the Iraqi army, an army built with $25 billion in U.S. aid, is this: Corruption isn't only a moral issue; it's a national security issue, too.
That's the message of Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, who spent 10 years working on economic development projects in Afghanistan — only to find that corruption was getting in the way of nearly everything she did.
Chayes, whose writing frequently appears on these pages, has written a new book, “Thieves of State,” that makes a persuasive case that corruption harms U.S. national security interests in at least two ways: It makes it easier for insurgent movements to win support among aggrieved citizens. And it makes U.S.-friendly governments incapable of defending themselves against insurgents, criminal cartels and even foreign invaders.
In Afghanistan, for example, public opinion polls over the last decade have found that relatively few Afghans support the Taliban — and yet the insurgency has been able not only to keep fighting, but also to attract new recruits.
How? At one point, the U.S. military command in Kabul surveyed Taliban prisoners about why they had joined the insurgency. “At the top of the list of reasons cited by prisoners for joining the Taliban was not ethnic bias, or disrespect of Islam, or concern that U.S. forces might stay in their country,” Chayes reports. “At the top of the list was the perception that the Afghan government was irrevocably corrupt.”
Ordinary Afghans didn't like the idea of Taliban rule, but at least the insurgents didn't steal from them the way the government did. Chayes tells the story of a former policeman who, after being forced to pay too many bribes, announced that the next time he saw a police vehicle approach a Taliban bomb, “I will not warn them.”
“Afghan government corruption was manufacturing Taliban,” Chayes concludes.
And it's not only the Taliban. Osama bin Laden listed “corruption” of Arab regimes from Saudi Arabia to Egypt as high on the list of grievances Al Qaeda intended to redress. In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State says it wants to stamp out corruption, too.
There's an odd, distant echo of the Cold War here: In China, Vietnam and Cuba, communist revolutionaries often won support from non-communists by promising honest government in place of corrupt autocracies. The United States found itself in the uncomfortable position of supporting regimes it knew to be corrupt, because it feared the alterna-
Outside the Muslim world, corruption creates another kind of national security problem. Ukraine was incapable of resisting Russia's stealth invasion of Crimea this year in part because corruption had deprived its army of equipment and training. Closer to home, narcotics traffickers have corrupted so many of Mexico's local police forces that President Enrique Peña Nieto announced last week that he will attempt to put all police under federal control.
Even worse, U.S. aid has sometimes made the problem worse. In Afghanistan, at one point, the economy could efficiently absorb an estimated 44% of the international aid that was flooding in; much of the rest got siphoned off into corruption. The unintended side effect was the creation of a government-industrial complex that relied on graft.
In the end, Chayes concludes, the problem isn't Afghan government incompetence, but rather that the government has made “siphoning riches” its top priority, and it is doing that “with admirable efficiency.”
There are no easy fixes for a problem as tangled as that, but Chayes offers a list of initial steps that could help, including banning corrupt chiefs of states from official visits to the United States, keeping corrupt leaders off the CIA payroll and delivering U.S. aid with strings that make corruption difficult.
But the first step is to think about corruption as a higher priority. It's not only immoral, unjust and economically inefficient. Left unchecked, it can also turn into a real threat to the security of the United States — and it ought to be treated that way.