Each Sunday this summer, we’re sharing an essay from the archives that provides a rare first-person account of history as it unfolded. This week, we’re highlighting Sarah Chayes’s essay on her experience living and working in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001—and how she came to understand that Washington was complicit in the systemic corruption that crippled the Afghan state.
“The disaster in Afghanistan—and the United States’ complicity in allowing corruption to cripple the Afghan state and make it loathsome to its own people—is not only a failure of U.S. foreign policymaking,” she wrote in September 2021. “It is also a mirror, reflecting back a more florid version of the type of corruption that has long been undermining American democracy, as well.”
Chayes arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to cover the U.S. invasion and the toppling of the Taliban as a correspondent for National Public Radio. As the country underwent enormous change, she committed to staying put and helping communities rebuild. By 2005, Chayes was working in Kandahar, having established a cooperative aimed at helping local farmers produce goods other than opium. For the business to operate legally, it was required to make a deposit at the national bank, but when Chayes attempted to do so, the clerk barked at her, “Come back tomorrow.” The subtext was clear, Chayes writes; “Come back tomorrow—with the money.” This was far from unusual. “Almost every interaction with a government official, including teachers and doctors, involved extortion,” she writes. And Afghan people “paid not just in cash but also in a far more valuable commodity: their dignity.”
Over time, Chayes came to understand the depth of the problem. “Corruption in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan wasn’t just a matter of constant street-level shakedowns,” she writes. “It was a system.” By 2009, she had become a special adviser to the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Although she dedicated her efforts to establishing an anticorruption task force, her plans were never implemented. Many officials in the Pentagon and the State Department “subscribed to the belief that corruption was just part of Afghan culture—as if anyone willingly accepts being humiliated and robbed by government officials.”
As U.S. troops withdrew in the summer of 2021 and the Taliban swiftly took control of the country, it should not have surprised anyone that the Afghan people did not fight on behalf of the corrupt government in Kabul. But for Chayes there was another, deeper truth: Afghanistan and the United States suffered similar problems despite being vastly different places. “When it comes to allowing profiteers to influence policy and allowing corrupt and self-serving leaders to cripple the state and anger its citizens, the two countries have much in common.” In recent decades, American leaders have lost two wars, colluded in a burgeoning opioid crisis, bungled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and hastened environmental catastrophes, among other things. “And how have the architects of these disasters and their cronies been doing?” Chayes asks. “Never better.”