Thieves of State

thieves-of-state-coverSarah Chayes
December 29, 2014

Sarah Chayes knows Afghanistan.

Her work there as an NPR journalist, an adviser to American government and military leaders striving to “liberate” and “democratize” the country, and as an NGO activist has been profoundly informed by her deep knowledge of the historical “rules” for princes written by sources as diverse as Machiavelli and the medieval Islamic scholar Nizam al-Mulk.

Her conclusion, consistent with the advice of these classic books, is that no state is secure if its people are oppressed by corrupt leaders and local officials.

In great detail, in Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens World Security, Chayes describes two destructive systems: the corruption of the local government and the often-unintentional collusion of the liberators and occupiers.

Time and again U.S. officials are blindsided by major developments in countries where they work. Too often they are insensible to the perspectives and aspirations of populations. Focused on levers to pull, on people who “get things done,” they overlook or help enable networks that are bent on power and private enrichment and are structured to maximize both, at the expense of the citizenry. And they formulate reasons why doing so is, unfortunately, necessary to the U.S. national interest.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its focus on the ground-level mendacity that too often thwarts the best of intentions. Where many other political analyses live in the abstract, Chayes’s work details the ways that ordinary citizens, the very population that the occupation wishes to help, are not only oppressed but also identify their “saviours” with that oppression.

One early example is simple but powerfully revealing. The American military gives a bridge-repair contract to a local elder. The elder skims off “his” portion, then passes the contract down to a contractor who takes “his” own piece before subcontracting the work to someone who does the same before the project is given to the local workers who take their cut before they actually do the repair. If each level takes 20% of the available money, just these four dilutions leave less than half of the original funds. The work is necessarily shoddy, and the local people who are left with a badly-repaired bridge look on helplessly as several levels of local officials use their slices of the pie to buy fancy new cars to drive over the “fixed” bridge. And since the Americans started the whole thing, it’s not hard to believe that they were in on the scam from the beginning. Of such small injustices, Chayes argues, are new insurgents and terrorists created.

How are the “liberators” responsible? By dealing with only government officials and not the locals directly, they facilitate the corruption.

We communicated almost exclusively with government officials, delivered development resources through their agents, hired their relatives and cronies, bought gravel and T-walls and gasoline and intelligence from them, and often used their armed thugs—known as private security companies—to protect our convoys.

From Afghanistan, Chayes moves on to the Arab Spring and other corrupt governments today, then to an extended look at possible solutions from chief-of-state leadership, to greater intelligence emphasis on unveiling and rooting out corruption, to changes in an international banking system that makes hiding corruption profits too easy, to stricter control of aid projects and the local contractors who carry them out.

Without these steps, Chayes warns – as did Machiavelli, Nizam al-Mulk, and all of the others – no regime is secure, no state is stable. Oppress any people enough, and they will rise up.

From the thirteen American colonies to the have-nots of Afghanistan, rebellion looks better than continued submission.


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