“Acute government corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges—among them the spread of violent extremism,” argues Sarah Chayes, author of the recent book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. A senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chayes weaves together political analysis, history, personal experience, and reportage to illuminate the connection between systemic corruption and violent upheavals around the world, from the Afghan insurgency to the revolutions of the Arab Spring and Ukraine.

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
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Chayes’s interest in foreign affairs can be traced to her upbringing. She was born in Washington, DC, to Abram Chayes, the late Harvard law professor and State Department legal advisor during the Kennedy administration, and Antonia Handler Chayes, a lawyer and former under secretary of the US Air Force. “It had never occurred to me that it was possible to have dinner and not talk politics around the table,” Chayes says in the interview that follows. She went on to study history at Harvard University and, after serving in the Peace Corps in Morocco, returned to her alma mater to earn a master’s degree in history, specializing in the medieval Islamic period.

Chayes began her international career as a journalist; she was an NPR correspondent in France, Algeria, Kosovo, and Afghanistan from 1996 to 2002. But after covering the fall of the Taliban, she decided to leave that world. “I had been getting a little bit uncomfortable making a living out of someone else’s story,” she says. Later she would run a nonprofit in Kandahar, Afghans for Civil Society, and found a fair trade cooperative called Arghand. As she told The Guardian, “I had no barbed wire, no sandbags.” Living and working among regular Afghan citizens, Chayes directly experienced corruption and the anger it was capable of provoking.

In 2009, Chayes’s nuanced understanding of the Afghan south landed her the job of special advisor to General David McKiernan and then to General Stanley McChrystal, commanders of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. And in the next year, she contributed to strategic policy on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arab Spring as special advisor to the US military’s highest-ranking officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Now, Chayes brings that understanding to the pages of her book. In Thieves of State, she investigates how kleptocratic governance in Afghanistan and elsewhere provokes civil unrest as well as violent extremism. She draws on historical examples, referring to such thinkers as John Locke, Machiavelli, and the medieval Islamic statesman Nizam al-Mulk. But the book resists a dry, academic tone. Through the experiences of everyday people, including her own, Chayes illustrates not only how malfeasance erodes citizens’ faith in their leaders and the ideals they once embodied, but also robs the people of their dignity. As Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in The New Yorker, “Chayes develops a muscular new vocabulary for talking about the problem of corruption.” Indeed, she makes a compelling case for why it is not so far a leap for an outraged civilian to take power into his own hands by picking up a gun.

I met with Chayes at the Harvard Club of New York City. She spoke in a firm, clear voice, with the incisiveness of a scientist and the compassion of a humanitarian.

Daniela Petrova for Guernica

Guernica: After covering the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, you decided to leave reporting and contribute to the rebuilding of the country. What prompted this decision?

Sarah Chayes: A couple of things. I think the most important one was a sense of historic opportunity. It wasn’t so much that I fell in love with Afghanistan. It felt like one of those moments when history is turning a corner. And it seemed to me that there was an opportunity to be part of changing the way these two civilizations—the West and Islam—understood each other. We’re both very diverse, very complex, very rich civilizations, and it seemed like we had a lot to learn from and teach each other.

I should also say, I had been getting a little bit uncomfortable making a living out of someone else’s story without any responsibility for how that story turns out. For a couple of years, I had been feeling an urge to get more involved. The trigger was President Karzai’s uncle, whom I had interviewed. He’d invited me over for dinner and on my way out, he asked me, “Wouldn’t you come out and help us?” It was one of those moments in your life when you don’t calculate risks, you just think with your mouth.

In Thieves of State, you write, “A fish rots from the head.” Can you speak about the corruption you experienced in Afghanistan?

Westerners tend to see corruption as a kind of ad hoc thing that a few bad apples might be engaged in. They see what they call “petty corruption”—meaning the daily payments to police—as a distinct phenomenon from what they call “high-level corruption,” which is the major siphoning of significant amounts of revenue at the top of corrupt governments.

What I came to understand was that, in fact, these are two activities performed by different elements of a single system. The street-level police officer will shake you down, and then at the end of the week, or month, he has to pay a certain proportion of that money up the line to his superior. His superior has to pay it up, and so on, until it goes to the interior minister.

Why was it that in Afghanistan, where the US was essentially providing almost 100 percent budget support, the country was incapable of paying its police force enough so that they didn’t have to steal? There is no reason the police wouldn’t have been paid a living wage, except if you say that the system wants the police to steal so that the revenue goes up the line. I would say that the ridiculously low pay for civil servants in a lot of these countries is deliberate. It’s part of how the system functions.

Often, the word “patronage” is used almost interchangeably with the word “corruption,” but in patronage systems, there is a significant downward distribution of resources either in the form of money or in the form of perks, jobs, gifts, or in some cases, public goods. Those systems have a certain stability to them because ordinary people are getting something for what they’re giving. That downward flow is, of course, unfair—it’s based on ethnicity, or family, or political party, or whatever you will—but there is a downward flow. In the countries I am examining [Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan], that downward flow has been curtailed.

When did you realize that corruption not only threatens social justice but also drives insurgency?

Corruption is a fact of life in America too, but as American citizens, if we are white, we tend to experience it as an opportunity cost. I live in Washington, DC, where the city council is notoriously corrupt. But how do I experience that? Maybe in streets that are not as well paved as they could be, maybe in a bridge that costs a lot more money than it should have. That’s a little bit abstract—shocking, of course—but still abstract.

In countries like Afghanistan and Nigeria, the corruption is in your face, and not only are corrupt officials stealing your money, but they are doing it with such contempt for you as a person, with such impunity. Often, the abuses are physical. In Nigeria, I heard of judges making sex the bargaining chip rather than money. Now let’s put that in the context of an honor-based society. Imagine that you’re the brother of a woman who got raped by a judge to have her case heard in court. What do you want to do? You want to kill the judge. So here is an insurgent movement that hands you a gun. You have rage, and they give you an outlet for your rage.

That violence can take different forms—one of which is revolution, as in the cases of the Arab Spring, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The violence I explore in Thieves of State is the violence that captivates America at the moment: extremist violence. An extremist group will hand you a gun and tell you not only that you can shoot the judge, but also that it’s to your credit to do so. And then they give you an argument, which goes like this: The reason this judge is so debauched and corrupt, in all senses of the term, is because he is not living according to God’s law. If only the government were structured according to God’s law, then the judge couldn’t behave this way.

As I researched this book, I found a remarkable parallel between the violence of the Protestant Reformation and the violence of today’s jihadists. There is a tendency for humans to see stringently imposed codes of moral rectitude as the only way to achieve public integrity. Militant puritan religion as an antidote to public corruption. Denied any recourse for legitimate grievances, people will get mad.

When US forces entered the country in 2001, Afghans were overjoyed to be rid of the Taliban. Has that changed? Do people think life under the Taliban was actually better?

I’m afraid so. By three or four years in, when [the Afghan people] were ranking governments, the current US-supported post-Taliban government was second to last. The top was the Russian occupation, then the Taliban, and—only then—us. The only thing worse than what we put in place in 2001 was the chaos of the civil war.

You were a special advisor to General David McKiernan, General Stanley McChrystal, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. What was that like for you?

From the start, I was more open to interacting with the military than other development workers in Kandahar were. It seemed to me that the military were the most significant actors, and if you wanted to have any impact on how the US intervention was going, how it was affecting the Afghan people, you had to be in touch with the military. And I found incredibly hard-working, selfless, multitalented officers—really impressive.

Similarly, when I began working, first for the commander of NATO, then for Generals McKiernan and McChrystal—this was a learning organization, constantly in the process of self-evaluation and course correction. Officers I spent time with may have been self-selecting, but I was very impressed with the range of their capabilities and the depth of their commitment. I found that my time on the ground, “outside the wire,” gave me an automatic credibility with men and women in uniform—who knew what it meant—that I didn’t always get with civilians.

The first email I wrote to General McChrystal after he took command was to ask whether I could basically design and launch an anti-corruption campaign. He said yes, and in retrospect, his command marks the highpoint of those efforts, though more resources were devoted to them later. That was when I became acquainted with a whole rule of law community at the US and UK embassies in particular, and a group of allies on base. It was such a welcome revelation: for the first time in eight years I discovered that there were other people out there who were concerned with this issue and who were doing something about it.

The hardest part for me was the life confined on base. I made it clear to General McKiernan that I wasn’t going to obey the security restrictions. I did go out into Kabul or back down to Kandahar. But there’s an incentive structure, like in any organization, and it’s twelve-hour days. A competitive, almost frenetic work ethic, which can keep people spinning very fast inside their own bubble. That’s better than laziness, obviously. But in retrospect, I wish I had broken out of it more and done more of what I could do that others couldn’t—engage with ordinary Afghan people. But it felt like, to be taken seriously, you had to be in the competition for “first into the office and last out.” I got that balance better when I was working for Admiral Mullen.

The second really hard part was giving up my freedom of expression. For the previous eight years, I had been writing frequently in public forums on insights I was gaining through incidents encountered in everyday life in Kandahar. And I couldn’t communicate that way anymore. The worst was during the famous fall 2009 interagency debate on Afghanistan policy. The right questions weren’t being raised. It was all about whether there should be 37,000 more troops or 41,000 more troops, as though that number made any difference if we weren’t addressing the underlying drivers of the conflict, one of which was the corruption of the government on whose behalf we were fighting. It was incredibly difficult to sit through that and not be able to participate publicly.

Your parents, Abe Chayes and Toni Chayes, were incredibly involved in defining and interpreting US diplomatic policy over the course of their careers. What was it like to grow up with them, and what early experiences with them influenced your political views?

I think we all assume that everyone’s family is just like ours until we reach a certain age. I remember in grade school, I went over for dinner to one of the other girls’ homes. Her family talked about sports, and I was completely dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that it was possible to have dinner and not talk politics around the table. Public affairs was always in my family—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—as was [international affairs]. We lived in England for a year when I was three. My parents were always traveling, and I went with them to France when I was about eleven. I learned early on that it was not just America on the planet.

I had no explicit direction from them to get involved in public life, but clearly my understanding of what that meant was shaped by their preferences. Also, they are both lawyers, and I think that a justice principle was pretty deeply ingrained.

One of the places you examine in your book is Nigeria, a country rife with corruption and with the violence perpetrated by religious extremists. What do you make of the recent elections there and the newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari?

One has to be very careful about placing too much hope in one individual. To be honest with you, last year I advised Nigerian friends to mount a public boycott of the vote. The logic was that both sides are so imprisoned in this structural corruption that it almost doesn’t matter which side wins. But I have changed my mind on that. I think the election of Buhari is incredibly important. And the indomitableness of the Nigerians to go out and vote in those numbers despite all of the complications, it’s a really remarkable expression of determination that something has to change.

I wrote an article in the World Politics Review which says that in Buhari, Nigerians deliberately voted for a disciplinarian. They know that they are in a moral crisis. They know that the corruption of their government has infected them, too, and they are all participating. And they don’t like that at all. They want Buhari to crack down on Boko Haram and crack down on the corrupt government officials. But they want him to crack down on themselves, too. Maybe we Americans have something to learn.

There’s another point the Nigerian election brings out. On top of the corruption of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, you had a bottoming out of oil prices and a reduction of US demand down to zero. That is, corruption on an apocryphal scale—like the scandal of 20 billion in missing oil revenues over a nineteen-month period, which played an important role in the campaign—was compounding the effects of a sharp economic downturn. People were really feeling it, and that added to their determination to vote.

That raises some very important questions about development assistance. I have been focusing on steps that could be taken to avoid delivering aid directly into the clutches of kleptocratic networks. But that thinking could be pushed even further. If development assistance—even when implemented perfectly and truly helping its intended beneficiaries—cushions the impact of corruption and abusive governance, then maybe it prolongs the ability of these leaders to stay in power. And maybe that doesn’t make sense. Just raising that question—could development assistance be fundamentally counterproductive?—creates a huge moral dilemma, essentially pitting the immediate well-being of populations against the chances of deep and lasting reform of the system in the future.

Speaking of disciplinarians as rulers, what do you think of the case of Singapore, which, under Lee Kuan Yew, transformed itself from one of the most corrupt countries in the world to one of the least? It’s #7 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2014.

I think to call someone a strong man is a little reductive. It has something to do with discipline and moral rectitude, and somehow I think the West has lost the balance between rectitude and liberty. We’ve gone off the charts on liberty, especially liberty that is enjoyed differentially. In other words, if you have money, you’re free, and if you don’t, you’re not. I know it sounds old-fashioned to say we’re too materialistic in the West, but happiness does not derive exclusively from things, and yet we seem to be structuring our whole society around things. I think that’s partially why [Westerners] are joining ISIS and going to Syria. We have lost our way in the West in holding up a vision for humanity that is not exclusively shaped by materialism.

Do you think the West might be contributing to the corruption in countries around the world?

Absolutely. One way is that when we’re engaging with one of these countries, we usually haven’t even studied its political economy. We persist in assuming that the private sector is something that we recognize as a private sector, and that the government is a government, even if there might be some corruption.

We have to change this framing, to understand that in some countries, the government is not a government that may be failing. It’s a criminal organization that’s succeeding. And that organization is made up of one or more kleptocratic networks, which involve government officials, private-sector actors, and organized criminals. All of these groups are represented in a single integrated network. We have to map that network. We have to know who plays what function, who is connected to whom, what revenue streams they are capturing, what elements of state function they have bent to their purposes, and which ones they have deliberately hollowed out.

Without that kind of knowledge, any international involvement is likely to be captured by the system. And that means military assistance is either strengthening what amounts to the network’s enforcement arm, or it’s being pillaged. Development assistance becomes a revenue stream for the network. High-level interaction with government officials who are running these systems raises their stature and legitimizes them.

Another way is right here at home, through the provision of corruption services, [to borrow an expression from] a friend named Oliver Bullough. For example, where do Russian and Nigerian kleptocrats keep their money? Where do they buy property? They get their banking services, legal services, universities for their children, luxury goods, and so on in Western countries. We’re laundering their money, and we’re laundering their images. In other words, ordinary people in these countries are up against not only the kleptocrats but also the whole West, which is acting as a shield protecting them.

Finally, it’s in our ideology. The glorification of money, the notion that the gross accumulation of wealth is somehow a sign of merit and virtue really started here. It started, this time around, with Reagan and Thatcher, and has been the dominant ethos right through the financial crisis of 2008, and even beyond. In many ways, the corruption I’ve been studying in places like Nigeria or Uzbekistan is not unrelated to the excesses that led to that crisis. It’s not unrelated to the confusion about the meaning of corruption and the appropriate role for money in politics right here in America.

This article originally appeared in Guernica.