Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Julian Kemper) (Staff Sgt. Julian Kemper)
How US arms sales fuel corruption around the world

The Biden administration has vowed to combat cronyism and can start by confronting the security sector.

Russian troops arrived in the capital of Kazakhstan on January 6 at Kazahk president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s urging in order to quell large scale popular protests. The president is trying to portray the protestors as terrorist threats and recently gave a shoot-to-kill order to his troops. Fed up with vast kleptocracy and cronyism, though, protestors are actually pushing back against one of the region’s most corrupt governments.

Corruption is nothing new — one needs only to look at the United States during the Gilded Age — but over recent decades it has been growing globally, with stark consequences. Last fall’s Pandora Papers offer the most recent example of the ways in which government leaders, autocrats and their cronies, and their enablers have undertaken both illegal, or immoral actions to move and hide their money.

The Biden administration rightly views corruption as an overarching and existential threat to democracy. In early December the administration put out its “Strategy on Countering Corruption” just days ahead of hosting the Summit for Democracy. Confronting corruption was one of the summit’s three pillars. The Biden team’s strategy on countering corruption represents a landmark effort by an administration to confront corruption. The administration must now hold true to its stated objective of increased scrutiny over security sector sales.

The elephant in the room

As much as issues of human rights and realpolitik have made foreign policy decisions difficult for American policymakers over decades, so too do issues of corruption. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the security sector. For more than half a century the United States has been providing and selling arms to authoritarian regimes or those governments democratic in name only for national security reasons. These same regimes are oftentimes the most corrupt and kleptocratic. The Biden administration will be hard pressed to successfully tackle corruption without major reforms to the security sector.

The situation in Afghanistan underscores the nature of kleptocratic regimes and their connection to international security. Over the course of 20 years, the United States — with allied contributions — propped up a regime that was corrupt to its core, and at every level of government. As countless SIGAR reports and scholars like Sarah Chayes have made clear, the rapid downfall of the Afghan military and government should have come as no surprise.

“Between 2001 and 2020,” according to the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, “Washington spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever, allocating $143 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and Afghan security forces.” This included the training of over 350,000 Afghan security forces. After inflation adjustments, that is more than the United States spent on the Marshall Plan. These sums of money, rapidly injected into a nation ill-equipped to absorb it, guaranteed a boondoggle for corrupt actors.

Security sector corruption in Afghanistan was just one part of broader corruption overall, but it provides a lens on the broader problem, and its direct correlation to weak governance, democratic decline, and regional instability. Georgetown University’s Jodi Vittori provides a stark description of what this looked like:

“Reliable-enough logistics and supplies for troops could not get off the ground because contracts were riddled with kickbacks (if they were fulfilled at all) and because some of the weapons, ammunition, food, and other necessities were diverted for personal gain. A corrupt personnel system meant promotions and key jobs went to politically connected Afghans or those who paid bribes rather than those most willing and able to fight. Troops faced battle knowing they may not be fed or paid because money and resources were being siphoned off. If they were wounded, they had to bribe medical staff for care and then pay for their food and medical supplies out of their own pockets. If they were killed, their widows would probably not receive their pensions without bribes or connections, leaving their families destitute.”

With such deeply rooted corruption in the Afghan security sector, it is no wonder forces evaporated in the face of the Taliban offensive. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans watched as their governmental leaders embezzled money to purchase estates in Dubai, while the president’s half-brother expelled citizens from their land outside of Kandahar in order to sell it off for personal gain, and the 2009 election was so egregiously fraudulent it shocked even those who were expecting it.

Chayes points out the ways in which kleptocratic systems in places like Afghanistan work and can drive people to violent revolt. In Afghanistan, officials received kickbacks as payment for appointments, which helped to ensure top cover for corrupt acts from the highest levels of government. “Two surveys conducted in 2010 estimated the total amount paid in bribes each year in Afghanistan at between $2 billion and $5 billion — an amount equal to at least 13 percent of the country’s GDP.” The Afghan system, like many others, prioritized self-enrichment, not governance.

Security sector corruption is rampant in many countries beyond Afghanistan, and has had, and will likely continue to have, serious consequences. As Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Fellow Rachel Kleinfeld points out, “the Pentagon and security experts pay attention to potential allies’ security sectors — but often give governance short shrift, focusing instead on training, equipment, and capabilities.”

In the Middle East, the United States has provided 45 percent of the arms sold from 2000 to 2019, as it seeks to build capable allies and partners, but corruption is widespread, and many governments can be repressive. As Vittori notes, instead of building up efficient and reliable security partners, “U.S. arms have helped reinforce the corruption and rent-seeking that underpin state fragility throughout the region.” U.S. allies are complicit too. For instance, “the United Kingdom documented that BAE Systems and its agents paid at least 6 billion British pounds in bribes to the Saudi royal family between 1985 and 2006. The Saudi government has recently accused Saad al-Jabri, a former Interior Ministry deputy, of misspending $11 billion of a $19.7 billion Saudi counterterrorism fund.”

Stop shooting ourselves in the foot

The United States and its Western partners spend money and effort to build up partner nation security capabilities, but often remain unable to reach their security objectives. The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University held a series of scholar/practitioner working group meetings on corruption in late 2021, and participants highlighted the ways in which corruption in the security sector, including to friends and allies of the West, enables kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes. Arms deals, for example, often use secret contracts (which are understandable in many instances), include offset contracts, and provide the opportunities for patronage and kickbacks that sustain networks of corruption. Moreover, these regimes then use these same weapons to keep down those that yearn for more dignity and opportunity.

If confronting corruption, shoring up democracy, and countering authoritarianism are the main tenets of the Biden administration’s national security strategy moving forward, it must also confront the conflicted nature of U.S. security sector aid. This will mean making hard choices over selling arms to “allies” that may use them to suppress their own peoples’ calls for more open government and/or use the sales as a means to entrench kleptocratic regimes. It will also mean placing tighter restrictions on who the United States and its allies sell arms to, what types of contracts are used, and putting in place stronger monitoring mechanisms.

As we have seen in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries, massive corruption creates instability, repression, and denuded security forces that work directly against U.S. efforts at shoring up democracy and countering corruption. The new strategy for countering corruption is a key first step, but the administration must follow through on its objectives.

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