Short bio Hi Reddit! Sarah Chayes here. A bit about me: After a decade living and working in downtown Kandahar, Afghanistan, service to two commanders of the international troops and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I landed at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I have been researching the security implications of severe corruption in many other contexts. (Think Boko Haram, the Arab Spring, ISIS, Ukraine.) A former National Public Radio reporter, I covered the fall of the Taliban. Convinced of the importance of the historic juncture, I dropped my journalism career and remained in Afghanistan to contribute to the reconstruction of the country.

Apart from Thieves of State, I wrote The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban and am a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times. My articles have appeared in the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. I speak French, Pashtu, and (rusty) Arabic.

My Proof:

Looking forward to answering your questions. Fire away!

Edit 1/20/2015 6:00 pm EST Thank all of you so much for this incredibly thoughtful conversation. I'll try to log back on tomorrow in case I missed any questions. In the meantime, you can read more about Thieves of State, and get in touch with me on And there's a Twitter handle too, of course: @thievesofstate. The objective is to share thoughtful work in this field. Thanks again everyone!

Edit 1/21/2015 12:00pm EST Dear All: Again, thanks so much. Logging off now. Please get in touch on the book! (That's the only way I'll get to write another one.) :-)

Comments: 113 • Responses: 55  • Date: 

hedgehogsinhats22 karma

How do we combat corruption in a society with a weak central government and highly independent local warlords/governors (for example Afghanistan unless things have changed since I read Ahmed Rashids book), when the local powers that be obviously have an interest in keeping corruption going and the central government isn't much better either?

Sarah_Chayes22 karma

The Afghanistan situation was -- was, I emphasize -- quite easy, at least for the first 5-8 years. The government was on life-support. The U.S. (and the rest of the international community) held the IV bag. So assistance (financial and later military) could have been much more strictly conditioned on constructive behavior on the part of Afghan political leaders. That is what all the Afghans I spent time with thought the U.S. should do, and were stunned that we didn't. Somehow, we decided it would be a violation of Afghanistan's "sovereignty" if we "intervened" in this way. As though we weren't intervening as it was!

Of course the situation -- in terms of what an outside power can do -- is much more difficult where the leverage is less overwhelming. Still, many actions can be taken that will reduce the degree to which corruption is actively enabled by outside powers. How they talk to and about corrupt officials; invitations to fancy international gatherings; ceasing to use foreign assistance as a kind of pay-to-play deal for "access" to host government officials; where applicable asset-seizures and visa denials. But all of this should be implemented carefully, following a rigorous analysis of the structure and functioning of corrupt networks.

For citizens, the first thing to do is to organize a boycott on bribes. If everyone got together and refused to knuckle under together, it would make a difference. When scandalous news is revealed -- such as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's likely theft of $10-$20b. in oil revenues, citizens should get out and demonstrate!! Who do they think is going to clean this up for them?

LinesOpen9 karma

Hello Sarah! Thank you so much for doing this. I have two, interrelated questions.

It seems that the cause of much hopelessness the world over is a lack of economic opportunities. These opportunities would have the benefit of giving one a sense of purpose, in addition to being able to provide food and shelter. But in many conflict areas, these opportunities are nonexistent (or involve joining an extremist group).

So, 1: What do you think of fostering worker collectives in these areas as a possible solution? They would provide a job, naturally, and the added benefit of owning part of the company keeps a worker personally invested.

And then 2: How can this start? And what unique blocks does corruption present to this model?

Sarah_Chayes11 karma

I think the problem I am pinpointing goes beyond lack of economic opportunity. That phrase is somehow...neutral. In the countries I am looking at, the widespread belief is that the lack of econ. opportunity results from the illegal and unethical and abusive capture of revenues and opportunities by a network of corrupt political leaders and cronies. So there is humiliation and in-your-face injustice in this poisonous stew. Much more infuriating than poverty alone. So...worker collectives are a potential solution to part of the problem, but don't really get at the heart. And as soon as worker collectives or other types of efforts to withdraw from the corrupt political economy begin, they will be targeted by the kleptocratic network.

LinesOpen7 karma

Indeed, that is absolutely true. (And I think the in-your-face aspect is why so many young people feel personally affronted and turn to extremism.) I imagined worker collectives a "ground-up" way to disconnect the elite from the process of production and so on.

What are some of your solutions for disengaging / destroying the kleptocratic network?

Sarah_Chayes7 karma

Note also, there are always policy trade-offs in these complex situations. But those trade-offs need to be weighed rationally. At the moment, we are not measuring the potential costs of NOT addressing corruption.

Sarah_Chayes6 karma

Because I began working on this problem in an environment where the USG held so many cards -- and because I am an American, and feel a sense of responsibility for what we do -- I have focused on the actions of Western governments, businesses, etc. And the first recommendation is systematically study the phenomenon. Can you believe that with the sprawling intelligence community we pay billions for each year, we are not systematically collecting or analyzing intelligence related to this target? I actually had to write out a set of "Priority Intelligence Requirements" (available on because the CIA/DIA, etc., had not drawn up such a list of questions. Second, based on the understanding of the kleptocratic network provided by that intelligence, carefully target key nodes in the network -- the way great cops would an organized crime network they were trying to take down. Look for their vulnerabilities, concentrate your efforts (visa denials, asset forfeitures, FCPA cases against businesses paying bribes to those targets, getting information on key bribe-takers as part of a plea bargain, tax audits, investigation of property held in the U.S., etc.)

At the very least, try to cease actively enabling the network, via high stature invitations, encouraging investment in industries monopolized by the kleptocratic network, indiscriminate delivery of humanitarian or military assistance... And especially, don't let the specter of terrorism overshadow the evils of corruption. To often, we ally with corrupt regimes against terrorists (see the anti-ISIS coalition), when it is precisely our alliance with these regimes that give the terrorists fodder!

LinesOpen3 karma

I very much think focusing on the Western response is what we should be doing (as Americans, anyhow). It is both our responsibility and prerogative to call our own government's policies into account.

As someone else in this thread said, the US government too has its own corruption issues. I think that addressing both our government's response to international corruption and the corruption within the US government are intertwined. For example, many US politicians benefited from corruption surrounding the Afghanistan conflict and its own corruption.

There is, indeed, a transnational corruption--one that may be harder than just addressing certain corrupt states. As the economy becomes globalized, so too do these "key nodes" in the kleptocratic network. And I am extremely fearful that fighting IS will engender our support of autocratic / kleptocratic regimes. One need look no further than Sisi in Egypt.

Anyhow, thanks for taking the time! I'm very much looking forward to the book.

Sarah_Chayes6 karma

Great comments, LinesOpen. Thanks so much!

networkant9 karma

Can you elaborate on the reach of corruption in Afganistan outside of the country. Where is global security most threatened, and what specific types of corruption have you seen to be most prevalant/damaging?

Sarah_Chayes17 karma

Several great questions embedded in this single one.

First: the main security concern that I suggest emanates from Afghan corruption is the expansion of violent extremism. It's amazing that a country that was completely done with the Taliban when I first arrived in Dec. 2001 (and I'm talking Kandahar, their former heartland) could have become permeable to the militants again within about five years -- all because of people's indignation with government corruption. The Taliban are a cross-border phenomenon, destabilizing highly corrupt Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. And now it's pretty clear that ISIS is finding a foothold in that border territory. So there's a major regional security threat.

The second security threat is that of Afghanistan becoming a kind of hub for transnational criminal enterprises. Afghan banks -- which are either Ponzi schemes or drug money laundering outfits -- now possess SWIFT codes. Facilitation for transnational criminal superpowers, along with opium and heroin production and trafficking, may become Afghanistan's major industries in the years to come.

As for "types" of corruption, I'm actually not sure that is the most fruitful way to consider the issue. What I am seeing in Afghanistan and other countries I have researched -- Nigeria, Uzbekistan, the pre-Arab Spring regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain, the Assad regime in Syria, not to mention Yanukovych's Ukraine, the Balkans, a number of Latin American countries, Bulgaria, etc., etc. -- is an integrated system. Cops on the street shake people down, but then pay a cut of the take up the line all the way to the minister of the interior. Meanwhile, the regime uses the police as its enforcement arm. Judges sell their decisions, and pay the justice minister. The tax authorities are wielded as implied punishment, allowing people to evade paying till the regime wants a piece of their action and they refuse. Then, here comes the audit. The agriculture department diverts water from your date palm trees unless you sell to the regime at a cut-rate price. The whole machinery of the state is bent to the purposes of enriching the kleptocratic network. It is that systemic structure that is most important...and that makes it a very difficult problem to solve, once it gets this bad.

thaway3141563 karma

Geez, no wonder police in places where revolutions happen seem to always defend the power, e.g Egypt...

Sarah_Chayes4 karma

Right. The kleptocratic network always secures some instrument of force -- and it's most often the police or a special sub-branch of the police. In Cameroon, it's the Rapid Intervention Brigade in the army.

Duck_Avenger6 karma

Hi Sarah. I would be interested in knowing how do you define corruption?

Sarah_Chayes10 karma

I try to listen to how the sufferers define it. Ask them. You get some incredible answers. One I will never forget from Afghanistan was practically a story: "When the district governor takes all the development resources for himself, and surrounds himself with armed thugs so the people can't get to him to submit their complaints, that's corruption."

It is, in general terms, the use and perversion of public office for the purposes of private gain.

gnarleyric5 karma

Why do we not have people like you working at home? Or maybe we do

Sarah_Chayes23 karma

Please read Zephyr Teachout's great book: Corruption in America. This is a wonderful question, because I would definitly put the U.S. on the continuum. I'm not saying corruption here is the equivalent of corruption in Nigeria or Bulgaria, but we are losing our grip on the type of public integrity the Founders invented our governing system to protect.

Sarah_Chayes5 karma

Dear All:

Again, thanks so much. Logging off now. Please get in touch on the book! (That's the only way I'll get to write another one.) :-)

krollAY5 karma

In your experience, how does corruption differ regionally within the same society? Also, is it typically systematic or are there certain individuals that seem to be driving corruption?

Sarah_Chayes6 karma

...differ regionally within the same society. That's a tough one, not entirely sure what you mean. Are you referring, for example, to the reputation of southern Italy of being more corrupt than northern Italy?

I have chosen to focus my research on countries that are systemically corrupt -- because those are the ones that have most often, and are most likely to, generate serious security threats. What I have noticed in these cases is there seem to be two rough "buckets:" countries whose corruption is highly structured, with just one or a very few kleptocratic networks monopolizing almost all the resources (think Ben Ali's Tunisia, Mubarak's Egypt, Uzbekistan, even Nigeria, as huge as it is), and countries in which there is a more even competition among relatively equally-matched rival networks. The latter description better fits a number of the Sahel countries in Africa, or the Balkans, or Latin America.

As for what drives it. My hypothesis is that there has been a deep shift in public morality since, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Reagan-Thatcherism, a kind of ideology of deregulation and the elevation of money as the ultimate value. In this environment, venal elites in many developing countries (not to mention our own) lost much restraint. I'm not saying this is an entirely new phenomenon, obviously. But it is clear from my research that something has happend that is qualitatively different from previous years, beginning in the 1990s.

Then what happens is that like any organism or system, the corrupt networks begin selecting for criminality, just like a mafia network does. Good criminals who pay lots of money up the line are rewarded and

Sarah_Chayes9 karma

...sorry...rewarded and promoted, while men and women of integrity are excluded, expelled, or hurt. So a culture comes to prevail...within the corrupt system. Not within the society at large. But it is a culture that has been assiduously cultivated by the kleptocratic elites.

krollAY2 karma

Thank you for answering, very interesting. I'll clarify, but yes, that is essentially what I meant. Do you notice differences in the levels of corruption regionally, all within the same system of government? The example I almost used is Chicago politics, where there seems to be a higher level of corruption than in other large US cities, but I didn't know if that was empirically true or just perceived to be true. (It doesn't help the perception that 2 of the last 3 governors are in jail)

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

I think you are right to explore this interesting dimension, because, indeed, there do seem to be regional variations in the degree and structure of corruption, especially at a sub-national level, within a given country. Looking at these variations and comparing them across countries, might provide clues as to how corrupt systems begin the process of selecting for criminality, what conditions favor such an outcome.

astorian895 karma

How do you think the situation in the middle east, more specifically syria and iraq, will play out for the kurds and a possible independent kuristan?

Sarah_Chayes10 karma

I'm not sure I am qualified to answer this question, having never traveled to either Syria or Iraq. Thanks for asking, though.

Unremoved4 karma

If you were to narrow your focus from the worldwide stage to the national or state level regarding corruption, especially with regards to law enforcement officers and police departments, what would be your biggest suggestion?

It appears that so many anti-corruption and Internal Investigation departments fall under the same principal budget and roof, so you have cases of the fox guarding the hen house. If you were to completely re-write policy and expectations for police, what would you do?

Sarah_Chayes9 karma

Your question contains the the answer: IGs must be independent of the organization they are investigating. They also have to have power to sanction, not just report. Question back at you: police where?

nmgoh23 karma

You were in charge of reducing corruption in a male dominated anti-female environment. How were you able to be effective in telling corrupt leaders that they were doing 'it' wrong as a woman?

Sarah_Chayes9 karma

Interestingly, a Western female operating in a place like Afghanistan is almost considered a third gender. It's exactly who you want to be. Because, functioning as a male (in Afghans' eyes), you are treated as a male, absolutely no reserve. Yet, as a biological female, you can interact with women, which no male can do. So you have the best of both worlds.

InnSanctum3 karma

OOOOoooo a corruption expert! Fascinating!

Could you possibly talk about the corruption you are seeing in the United States?

Ive always told people that the corruption in the US only happens at the highest levels. Try to walkin to a DMV and buying a license from someone working there will get you arrested. If you need the EPA's rules loosened so your company can pollute more and make more money, donate millions to the right campaign coffers...

In the US, only the rich are allowed to be corrupt.

Sarah_Chayes4 karma

I think there is a good degree of truth to this. You can't offer a bribe to a DMV worker or a cop in the U.S. -- or if that happens it's quite marginal. But how should we think about the tacit bargains that are done every day, campaign finance money for inaction on a certain bill, or help with an investment or whatever. Read Teachout's Corruption in America. Seriously, order it tonight.

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Thank all of you so much for this incredibly thoughtful conversation. I'll try to log back on tomorrow in case I missed any questions. In the meantime, you can read more about Thieves of State, and get in touch with me on And there's a Twitter handle too, of course: @thievesofstate. The objective is to share thoughtful work in this field. Thanks again everyone!

CanisImperium3 karma

When you're in a position where a minor government official is demanding a petty bribe, how do you react, personally? Suppose that the official in a developing country is holding something of significant value for you -- say the family dog. What would you do?

Sarah_Chayes5 karma

I make a physical nuisance of myself. For example, like sitting on top of that official's desk, and saying I won't leave till he performs whatever action he is supposed to perform. Literally I did that once, without quite understanding the physics of how I got up there. Usually that puts them in a tizzy and what they most want is to make you go away. Obviously not to be tried in a context where the official might physically harm you or put you in jail. Also important if you are a relatively protected foreigner in such a context to ensure that whatever dispensation you get you also ensure applies to whatever locals are in the room. Otherwise you are only getting an exception made for yourself, and angering the local victims even more.

twisted_yellow_wire3 karma

Sarah, As a corruption expert what advice do you have for the common individual that is confronted with corrupt officials.

Read this article about corrupt police and military checkpoints in southern Mexico and their impact on the local population.

How would you, as a corruption expert, handle a soldier's solicitation of a bribe if you were in a situation similar to that described in the article by Said Salazar?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

That is a terrific piece of reporting, thanks for sharing, Twisted Yellow Wire.

It is very difficult for an individual, especially an elderly woman, to stand up to this kind of abuse all alone. The predators single out the frightened and vulnerable. So I think the first thing to do is fight hard not to let them isolate you. Don't just quietly get off the bus. Try to enlist your fellow-passengers. Say: "Why are they picking on me? You all know what they are about to do -- steal my property under pretext of the law. Help me. Don't let them take me off this bus! I had to borrow money to buy this merchandise. They will ruin me!"

This is a risky course of action, perhaps better taken by a younger person. A beating might result. But the deep question is: is standing up for yourself and for the true ideals of your society worth taking a risk for or not? Maybe you will lose this battle. But maybe the other passengers will think twice next time.

A further course of action would be to organize other passengers along this route, with a determination that no one will get off the bus, and everyone will protect their neighbors when shaken down.

A third course of action would involve connecting with a civil society anti-corruption group, and enlisting its help both in organizing such a civil disobedience effort AND in getting the word out to the United States government that the support supplied to Mexico is being misused in these ways.

GoogleOpenLetter2 karma

Did we ever find out what the VP of Afghanistan was doing in the Dubai Airport with $52 million in his bags as revealed by wikileaks? What does it say about american corruption that they were told to let him go and not ask questions?

WikiLeaks: Afghan vice-president 'landed in Dubai with $52m in cash.

I'm of the opinion that Afghani (and Iraqi) reconstruction is basically just a cover for funnelling tax payer money into the hands of expensive private contractors in exchange for campaign funding for politicians back in Washington.

In your opinion to what extent is this view accurate?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

I don't think it's quite fair to say that everyone involved in the effort to rebuilt Afghanistan and Iraq after the initial invasion was on the take. A large number of really dedicated officials and development professionals, at every echelon, devoted blood sweat and tears to the endeavor. That said, far too much money went the way you describe.

Kykle2 karma

What would you say is the most severe case of corruption that you have been personally involved with in Afghanistan?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Do you mean a request to me for a corrupt pay-off? Or a corrupt action that I as an advisor had to grapple with on a U.S. policy level?

gguhjbfehv1 karma


Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Sorry, that's an either/or question! :-) If you mean both, say it!

Pokmonth1 karma

Both please! Very interesting AMA so far. I came expecting to dislike you but every response make me respect you more and more

Also, "Yes" in this context on reddit means both

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

So sorry for my etiquette ignorance! I think the worst case of corruption I was personally involved in was when the provincial department of education baldly asked me for a cut when I put together a sister-school program with U.S. middle schools contributing supplies for Kandahar sister-schools. Watching teachers grab all the best stuff, and listening to the ed department chief try to shake me down made me almost physically nauseous.

Nationally, one of the most shocking cases was a scam by the Minister of Religious Affairs, who was shaking down every single pilgrim to Mecca leaving from Afghanistan. Can you imagine? Karzai allowed him to sneak out of the country though he was under a court-ordered travel ban, and he is in the UK.

boatdrinks2 karma

It is widely believed that the big bankers are corrupt and the Fed has put in an extremely dangerous financial position. Do you have any thoughts or knowledge on corruption in the big banks?

Sarah_Chayes4 karma

Read 13 Bankers by Johnson and Kwak. Required reading for all Americans, my view. Also, very interestingly, the then governor of the Nigerian Central Bank bailed out their banks, like we did, but then...PROSECUTED THE BANKERS. Nigeria could do it, but not us?

tylerguyj2 karma


Sarah_Chayes3 karma

I think these are profoundly issues of justice. But I don't think it's the same set of issues as the acute corruption I am talking about in other countries. I would say that the deliberate incarceration of black Americans in order to force them to work for free in the industrializing South after Reconstruction might more easily be assimilated to corruption. Also, the impact of corruption is often exacerbated when the abuse is consistently applied to one segment of the population (Shi'ites in Bahrain, Sunnis in Syria), but these are, in my view, fundamentally different complexes of issues. It is good to try to be precise in using vocabulary, not stretch terms to cover a host of different ills.

I don't have enough law enforcement expertise to speak to the camera issue, except to say that I am suspicious of technical fixes to complex societal problems. I suspect that deeper understanding of communities, better training and drilled procedures, and a host of other reforms, together with cameras, would be required to make a real change.

Scotrp2 karma

Is there any truth to the rumor, under U.S control opium pruduction greatly increased. And if so who profited?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

It's not a rumor. Look at the findings of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. They do annual opium surveys and you can see how production has shot up under our watch. Corrupt Afghan government officials have been among the primary beneficiaries.

Sarah_Chayes1 karma


yakoos2 karma

Aid is inversely linked with economic growth in part due to its misappropriation and embezzlement. Why aren't nonprofits held more stringently to anticorruption guidelines?

Sarah_Chayes6 karma

Non-profits, but also donor agencies. The problem is that aid professionals assume they are positive actors. They often overlook the degree to which their resources become just another revenue stream feeding the corrupt networks. Too often, the benchmark for success is expenditure, rather than outcome. Often better outcomes are achieved by NOT funding a given project. Many development professionals understand this, yet to date they have been unable to alter the dominant culture of the aid industry.

OldschoolofRock2 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA! I read the recent piece on you in the New Yorker and find your work very interesting. The concept that systemic corruption affects the long term stability/security of the government seems so obvious yet I get the feeling that the recent COIN wave in Iraq and Afghanistan never fully appreciated the importance this idea.

Anyways, my question- A few months ago I attended a Senate briefing by SIGAR and it was quite depressing. These extremely capable and professional people seemed somewhat helpless in their task of building a functional democracy in Afghanistan. I remembered a quote from a former Ugandan president (can't remember which one) that essentially said "it is ridiculous to just parachute democracy into a country with no history of it and expect it to work". Meaning it took Europe and N. America hundreds of years of centralized government and bureaucracy (and lots of wars) before we could establish sustainable democracies.

So: A. Is it unreasonable/naive to try and establish Westernized Centralized democratic governments in countries with no/to little history of centralized government or professional bureaucracy? and B. would it result in less corruption (and less citizen discontent) if we allowed these countries to be ruled by a decentralized, tribal form of government?

Sorry for the length and thanks for doing this AMA!

Sarah_Chayes5 karma

It is a pleasure, OldschoolofRock.

In fact, we did not "parachute democracy" into Afghanistan. That is what most Afghans expected us to do (if you add the very strong emphasis they placed on rule of law and equitable application of understandable rules to all, regardless of station). Instead, while we SAID we were bringing democracy, we selected former war criminals to work with -- because they were "anti-Taliban" -- we armed, equipped, protected, financed, and employed these people, who by rights should have been on trial, leaving the Afghan population no leverage against them. By the end, people were saying to me: "Well, it's obvious the Americans WANT the corruption, you are enabling and protecting it."

So, what I have found over these years is that the only thing worse, perhaps, than "imposing Western norms and standards" is imposing Western notions of local norms and standards.

The fact is that Afghanistan had one of the the best, least corrupt and most forward-looking and democratic governments in the region in the middle of the 20th century. Then the Soviet Union invaded, executed 30,000 intellectuals and occupied the country. Then Pakistan (and the U.S.) decided that the best antidote to Communism was religiosity, and funded Islamist resistance factions.

And the rest is history.

belonii1 karma

as a corruption expert, why the hell are you in afghanistan and not the USA?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma


b0utch1 karma

What do you think of the word "lobbying"?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Read Corruption in America. Until a few decades ago, it was considered synonymous with corruption!

ArchieTect1 karma

The Constitution required a militia called upon from normal people who don't necessarily want to fight. Hence, no corrupt army or gang could oppose (the largest "gang") a militia of normal, moral men.

Do you see the US government and other G20 governments applying any of the knowledge of the founding fathers?

Do you think men can exist with a double standard of morality?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Sadly, we seem quite able to exist with a double standard of morality, because Americans' commitment to principles of democracy and justice seem too often to end at water's edge. And, as Teachout's book, "Corruption in America" demonstrates, we also seem to have drifted quite far from our founders' understanding of corruption.

thaway3141561 karma

Dear Ms. Chayes, I read about your book in the New Yorker, and the article's description of all the corruption was pretty mind blowing to me. I'd buy and read the book, but I feel it would just fill me with frustration and impotent rage against the whole mess.

I guess my question would be how do you envision the problem being solved, or if that's too hard to answer, who keeps cutting your plant?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma


Check out the Remedies chapter in Thieves of State. And...oh by the way...all of you Redditors...go out and buy Thieves of State! It's a pretty rollicking read... But thought provoking, too.

DieFledermouse1 karma

  • Are there any recent examples of a developing country reducing government corruption?
  • I'm no expert, but I thought there was still significant corruption in places like Greece and Italy. With all their advantages, why can't they overcome this problem?
  • Some economists have argued that low-level "corruption" is really a way to properly price a scarce good. For example, you can pay a bribe, or a "fee", to get a license application processed quickly in India. Do you find this low-level bribery to be a problem in areas you've been in?

Sarah_Chayes4 karma

  • South Korea, Peru, Singapore, to some extent Indonesia, to some extent Ghana. None of them perfect examples, but at least a positive trajectory.

  • There certainly is significant corruption in Greece and Italy. And Ireland, and Iceland, and the United States. This is a battle that is never definitively won, sadly.

  • I strongly disagree with the tendency to excuse "low-level" corruption. Most frequently, in the places I have studied, that is just one element of a vertically integrated corrupt system, in which scarce revenues that should be spent on public goods are being syphoned directly into the pockets of the kleptocratic network. It's theft, pure and simple.

Sarah_Chayes1 karma

Please stand by, back in about 45 mm.

mscomies1 karma

Hi Sarah. I'm an Army vet who deployed to Afghanistan twice in 2007 and 2009. The general consensus amongst the rank + file military is that the ANP and ANA won't last two days after ISAF/NATO pack up and leave. Most of them were unmotivated, uneducated, and were more interested in lining their own pockets than establishing a functional government. Do you see any way to get the ANSF to the point where they can function independently without having foreign forces assist them with planning, logistics, and communications?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Thank you so much for writing in, and thanks for all you have done. I wonder if we may have met?

In answer to your question, I do not. And I don't think it's the right approach to the problem. After all, what are security forces but a tool, an "arm" if you will, of a government? Now, you can take that arm to the gym, you can exercise it, give it a boxing glove or a brass knuckle, get it limber and strong. But if the body to which it is attached is comatose, how can that arm defend it? The problem with the whole approach to Afghanistan was to see the ANSF as a substitute for a government.

mscomies1 karma

It's highly unlikely we ever met. I was a relatively low-ranking guy who didn't get to rub shoulders with the brass very much.

As for the Afghan government, I didn't see much signs of them, well, governing. There was little in the way of a judicial system or revenue collection outside of what ISAF provided, and the ANSF largely operated outside the direct control of the local provincial government. I'm uncertain if the local authorities could make a difference even if they tried. Try finding someone willing to teach at a school or run a medical clinic under the threat of getting their heads cut off.

For lack of a better solution, would you advise splitting our efforts to a more localized government than the current top down authority based out of provincial capitals + Kabul? The local groups lead by strongmen and tribal leaders seem to have more cohesion + capability for independent action than any of the local government structures we've set up. We would run the risk of warlordism, but that might end up being the lesser of the two evils.

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

I certainly think that more localized authority in certain parts of the country would have made sense. But key to a healthy government is checks and balances (which the U.S. basically invented by the way, but neglected to export to Afghanistan). So just as important as more localized power is more DISTRIBUTED power. Not just the governor, but the shura. Read Thieves of State, you'll see an analysis of the "abusive government" versus "absent government" debate.

HoosierRed1 karma

why does the pentagon continue to go unaudited year after year even though the rest of the government receives annual auditing? this seems like a huge loophole towards corrupt activity...

Sarah_Chayes4 karma

I don't think it's accurate that the Pentagon goes unaudited. But there is certainly too much opacity in the expenditure of huge sums of money by the U.S. military -- but even more so by the intelligence community.

Straya_Cunt1 karma

Hi there! I live in the Philippines and one struggle that consistently comes up here is corruption. The corruption appears to being in the highest levels of government and trickles down all the way to the lowest level of public office.

When a majority of a government is infested with corruption, what kind of solutions are there? Radical ones? What is a solution that can be considered democratic, however not so democratic that the same corrupt politicians can be re-elected?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Please stand by, I have to go to a meeting, I will be back in about 45 mm.

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Hi...meeting seems to be a bit delayed, so let me take a crack at this.

When governments are systematically corrupt like the Philppines, it may indeed be that radical solutions are the only way to go. But often they can spin off into unpredictable directions, like the Arab Spring revolutions. The American Revolution is a pretty interesting example of an anti-corruption revolution that did not go off the rails. The entire U.S. constitution is basically a corruption prevention device. Of course, 200+ years later, it is getting distorted and the levers of power are getting captured, but that was the original intent.

In your position, I don't see any alternative to a mass movement. Massive civil disobedience against corrupt extortion, and the cultivation of real reformist politicians, as well as mechanisms to ensure ongoing rigorous citizen oversight.

The worst type of radical solution, and the Philippines suffers from this in areas, is a radical religious one. That's the siren song of rigid, puritanical private morality, imposed if necessary by force, as a so-called antidote to public corruption. Just look at the Iranian experiment with THAT solution.

Thanks for the question.

ownererz1 karma

After reading much on the Vietnam war (mostly 1950s onward) and how corrupt the Republic of Vietnam was, do you think it would have been possible to straighten out a regime so corrupt? Do you think a central leadership if strong helps even if it is as corrupt as a weaker, more decentralized government?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Rereading this, I see my grammar gets a bit iffy in spots. Please forgive!

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Vietnam is a great analogy to Afghanistan and Iraq today. In all three counter-insurgency campaigns, U.S. officials simply refused to see how important a government the people could be proud of was to ultimate success. The U.S. thought in all cases, that a security-only response to the insurgency would suffice (or at best, a military approach backed by some development resources). It just doesn't work. A population will not stand up against an insurgency on behalf of a government it finds just as hostile to its interests. At worst, members of the population will join the insurgency against the government. So at best the security forces that the U.S. is spending billions to support, is mowing the grass. You should read a brilliant monograph by a guy called Komer: "Bureaucracy Does Its Thing." 1972. Switch the GVN acronym (government of Viet Nam) for GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and it is a perfect description.

Highly corrupt highly centralized leadership does not help. That's Ben Ali's Tunisia, Mubarak's Egypt, etc.

ownererz1 karma

Thank you for the link, I took a look at the document and it seem'd very interesting. After reading Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg I remember Komer's name coming up several times:I couldn't believe the paper was hosted on a RAND website!

How would you go about constructing a stable democracy in a culture so different with people that are hostile? In Vietnam from what I've read the more wealthy and equal a area was the more likely it was to side with the NLF and NVA then the ARVN and US, while the poorer regions would just fall in line.

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

In Afghanistan, the people were not hostile -- until, about 4 or 5 years in, they realized we were not there to help them build a decent government. I wasn't in Vietnam, but I suspect a similar evolution took place there. As for different cultures, as you'll see in other answers, I believe that most human beings want some kind of say in how they are governed -- in their collective destiny -- and some mechanism for the redress of legitimate grievances. That's democracy, in my book, not the specific mechanics. So the question is how to deliver that substance in a form that feels comfortable and legible to a specific population.

Jayleighhes1 karma

Hi Sarah, thank you so much for this! How does one become an anti-corruption expert? I am currently using my GI Bill benefits to go to school for my bachelors in Criminal Justice with a minor in Sociology. My ultimate goal would be to end up in an internal affairs type position as dispelling corruption is something I feel very passionately about. Do you have any advice for someone who would like to follow a similar, albeit smaller, path as you?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

You are so welcome, Jayleighhes. Thanks for your question. I wonder if there isn't a specialized course of study for oversight or inspector general professionals. I think that's what you should explore, and it's a great idea. SIGAR, mentioned above (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko), did years of oversight in Congress. A good UK friend of mine who built a special anti-corruption investigations unit within the Afghan police started out in Scotland Yard IG. You won't be popular with your buds, but it's God's work. Go for it!

xhosSTylex1 karma

What happened to all the U.S. money (12 billion+ dollars) that magically disappeared during the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

A great deal of it was wasted. You should check out the work of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR. Very careful oversight work. But he can't even get a number on how much was spent in Afghanistan, let alone how much may have been wasted.

Littlewigum1 karma

What are you views on the New England Patriots and specifically Belichick? How do we clean that organization up?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Out of my lane, Littlewigum!

Sir_Meowsalot1 karma

Hi Sarah,

I don't know if you'll see this once you come back again, but just in case:

Q1: Do you believe that Afghanistan can combat corruption by creating a system of education where the ideas and notions of honest work and pay for the next generation may alleviate these issues?

Q2: Do you see any indications that the new government in power is battling corruption within it's ranks. Also including the military and police?

Thank you and stay safe!

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

It would be nice to create such an education system -- although ordinary Afghan people don't need to be taught much about how dangerous corruption is. But who "creates" that system? With what money? The education ministry and provincial departments were among the most rapacious -- precisely because there was so much foreign money flowing in. See a late answer to a previous question about corruption I was subjected to. The education ministry is just one strand of this very integrated corrupt system. And that is true in every country I've looked at.

On the new government. Both of the executives perpetrated massive, in-your-face fraud to get "elected." I don't have much confidence that they will uphold the laws they so blithely broke.

schermo1 karma

Hello Sarah! Thanks for answering questions.

Stephen Pinker's book 'The Better Angels of our Nature' reports some evidence that 'gentle commerce' and the web of mutual dependencies that result may play a strong role in suppressing inter-state violence.

This was quite interesting to me. It kind of reads like 'Rotary Club of Akron Ohio Saves the World.'

Do you think that improved low-level, economic engagement with Afghanistan would motivate the merchant class to act as a counterweight to corruption? Could this have enough scale to make a meaningful difference?

Sarah_Chayes3 karma

I think this might have been a promising approach...which is why I started a small business in Kandahar. (Natural skin care products. But there has to be a critical mass. We were one of the few manufacturing enterprises in town, there was no steady electricity, so the others faded away (we had solar) and international development efforts were not geared to helping start-ups. The engagement needs to be quite broad to make an impact.

sarahlovesghost1 karma


Sarah_Chayes2 karma

I'm afraid I don't know enough about Argentina in particular to answer this question. Forgive my ignorance of Latin American cases! For future study.

sarahlovesghost2 karma


Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Thank YOU. And I am sure you are right.

Mapedit1 karma

I think the brazilian republic since the 80s will make a good case study.

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Indeed! We have a "corruption and security" heat map, and Brazil is certainly on it.

MiamiPower1 karma

Who has the task and contracts. To mine out the 4 trillion dollars worth of natural resources discovered there a couple years back?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Good question. Have you ever heard the expression "resource curse?"

fisch091 karma

My question is why the heck didn't any of the higher ups want to wear their armor on patrols?

Sarah_Chayes2 karma

Not sure I understand this one, Fisch09!

[deleted]-4 karma


Sarah_Chayes3 karma

Normally I would not dignify such trash with a reply.

But I would ask you...look above at how thoughtful and inspiring this conversation has been. AREN'T YOU ASHAMED?

Reddites...please show this person he does not deserve to be part of your community.