Government by crime syndicate

The remarkable public confrontation between the Gandhi-like ascetic Anna Hazare and the government of India — which came to a triumphant end last month with a glass of orange juice and a government promise to create a strong, independent anti-corruption agency — is the latest manifestation of a worldwide explosion of outrage at what historians may someday come to deem humanity’s latest form of tyranny: the capture of states by criminal syndicates. Otherwise known as rampant public corruption.

In early 2010, I was asked to make a presentation to a counter-narcotics symposium at the Marshall Center in Germany. In attendance were several hundred high-ranking military and law enforcement officers from around the world. I dutifully explained the opium economy in Afghanistan, which I’ve had a chance to observe during nearly a decade living and working in Kandahar. But I could not resist inserting two slides at the end of the talk. They depicted the phenomenon that really interests me: the increasingly structured capture of the Afghan government by what amounts to a set of interlocking, vertically integrated criminal networks.

I have watched the phenomenon evolve over the last 10 years. At first, there was a furtive testing of the limits, as Kalashnikov-toting ruffians shook down travelers for “sweets” (as extorted bribes are prudishly called). Over time, the corruption expanded and evolved, and today, Afghanistan is controlled by a structured, mafiaesque system, in which money flows upward via purchase of office, kickbacks or “sweets” in return for permission to extract resources (of which more varieties exist in impoverished Afghanistan than one might think) and protection in case of legal or international scrutiny. Those foolish enough to raise objections are punished. The result is a system that selects for criminality, excluding and marginalizing the very men and women of probity most needed to build a sustainable state.


When I finished my presentation, to my astonishment, the participants rose in a standing ovation. Many came down to the front of the room to talk further. “You just described my country,” they chorused.

I was stunned. For so long had my nose been buried in Afghanistan and its peculiarities that I had not realized I was experiencing just a sliver of a global phenomenon. As I spoke to these symposium participants (who came from Nigeria, the former Soviet republics, Pakistan and elsewhere), I couldn’t help but notice a correlation between mafia government and the existence of violent religious extremism. And I realized that the phenomenon of public corruption — often pooh-poohed or viewed as a part of the ambient “culture” of South Asians, or Muslims or whomever — poses a substantial threat to international security.

Then my musings led me further afield, to consider political philosophy. Was mafia government, I began to wonder, also posing a threat to the entire phase of political history in which we live?

This phase, which could be said to have begun with the Enlightenment, has been marked by an ongoing evolution of reason-based rules for governing society that have been embraced by an ever-wider swath of the world.

The Enlightenment (historians and philosophers, please forgive the simplification) was the moment when certain Western countries dethroned God from his role directly ordering human affairs. A set of rules was substituted, derived from human reason and thus subject to amendment and expansion as conditions evolved or as the understanding of who is a full human being in the eyes of the law — and could therefore benefit from these protections — expanded. One of the key elements of these rule-based systems has been legal recourse against perceived abuse of power.

But if such a rule-based system is captured by a criminal network, thus injecting an intolerable degree of the arbitrary into the award of opportunity or benefit, then citizens are denied fair recourse. To whom, then, should they turn for redress of legitimate grievances? In many cases — in Afghanistan as well as in Nigeria or Uzbekistan — they have turned back to their interpretation of God and his laws, obliterating more than 200 years of political history.

But fortunately this tendency doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In 2010, for example, Kyrgyzstan led the way with massive anti-corruption demonstrations. The Arab Spring has been the biggest international phenomenon since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and was largely motivated by the identical grievances that have animated Anna Hazare’s supporters in India. Moroccans carry brooms to their rallies; Egyptians cry out for the prosecution of corrupt officials; Tunisians demand the return of assets expropriated for private benefit by the Ben Ali clique.

The ultimate results of these experiments — in government overthrow, constitutional transformation or the establishment of a truly independent oversight mechanism — remain in doubt. But it would behoove all of us to redouble our efforts to ensure their success. For failure could spell a fatal setback for the whole enterprise of government by human reason.

Sarah Chayes runs a cooperative that produces soap and skincare products in Kandahar, Afghanistan ( She is the author of “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban” and designed an anti-corruption strategy for the command of the international forces.