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Corruption As a

Foreign Policy Issue

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

Sarah Chayes, W.W. Norton & Company,

2015, $26.95, hardcover, 262 pages.

Reviewed By Susan B. Maitra

In this absorbing book, author Sarah

Chayes makes the case that corruption—

a phenomenon largely neglected by

today’s policymakers—is a basic driver of

instability that must be addressed.

Thieves of State

is anchored in Afghan-

istan, which Chayes called home for more

than a decade after landing in Kandahar

in December 2001 to cover the fall of the

Taliban for National Public Radio.

Dropping journalism, she worked first

to launch an NGO in Kandahar for the

Baltimore-based brother of President

Hamid Karzai, and then founded a local

agricultural cooperative and soap-mak-

ing factory there.

Beginning in 2009, she served as an

adviser to Generals Stanley McChrystal

and David Petraeus in Kabul, and then

transited between Afghanistan and

Washington, D.C., as special assistant to

the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,

Admiral Mike Mullen.

Chayes takes the reader along as

gradually, through her experiences, she

comes to see Afghanistan’s governmen-

tal structure as a vertically integrated

criminal syndicate. In this scheme,

however, first sketched out for her by

Chris Kolenda, one of Gen. McChrystal’s

“phalanx of colonels,” patronage is not

dispensed downward, but rather the

proceeds of corruption are channeled up

to those sitting atop the pyramid.

Starting with Machiavelli’s admonition

to the prince that theft of his subjects’

possessions would threaten his rule,

Chayes sprinkles the narrative with other

examples from the archives of advice

literature, “Mirrors for Princes.” From

antiquity through early European history,

it turns out, even the most autocratic rul-

ers have recognized that corruption must

be kept in check to preserve stability.

She also devotes several chapters to

the problem of corruption in other coun-

tries—Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Uzbeki-

stan. These essays are more cursory, the

spoils of short visits plus some research,

and they lack the in-depth understanding

she acquired in Afghanistan. It is to that

story that the reader is eager to return.

As an adviser

to McChrystal

and Petraeus,

Chayes worked

hard to make

anti-corruption a

central element of

the counterinsur-

gency campaign.

By winter 2009,

the International

Security Assistance

Force’s Anti-Corruption Task Force was

“on the runway,” engines revving—but

it was not off the ground, and within

months Gen. McChrystal was gone.

Gen. Petraeus was far more serious

about going after corruption, but then

failed to follow through. It is Chayes’

explanation as to why—no spoilers

here—that is the most important piece of

modern history in the book, and makes it

required reading for all those interested

in Afghanistan policy.

But was this really the whole story?

Would Petreaus really have pursued her

recommendations with the zeal that she

recommended? Or would he have recog-

nized that if corruption was as extensive

as she said, then taking down so many

officials would have caused the govern-

ment to implode—an extremely risky

strategy in the middle of a war?

Perhaps he recognized that it’s very

hard to fix a plane while flying it, let alone

rebuild the entire thing in mid-air. This is

the biggest weakness in her thesis. While

persuasive in identifying the problem, her

solutions for Afghanistan are less com-

pelling. Would they have helped or hurt?

We will never know.

Many military and civilian personnel

who knew the author in Afghanistan may

not remember her fondly, and so her can-

dor in acknowledging some of her own

mistakes is to her credit. While she ran

the NGO in Kandahar, she was viewed

as being in league with a faction of the

Karzai clan. In the book, she admits this

mistake and the extent to which she had

been blinded to the corruption perpe-

trated by her former friends.

She acknowledges her infatuation

with Gen. McChrystal’s passionate, high-

energy team, as well as her underestima-

tion of “the accompanying arrogance.”

And she owns up to her own arrogance

after Petraeus empowers her and her

associates to infuse the troops with a new

anti-corruption focus on governance.

Describing a round of briefings to

the subordinate commands that were

greeted with “suspicious perplexity,”

she writes: “Who were we anyway? On

whose authority were we telling division

commanders they’d have to upend their

campaigns—reassign intelligence offi-

cers, overhaul procedures for partnering

with Afghan military and police officers,

expose their men to the risk of retalia-

tion, wade into politics? Fortified by that

flourish Petraeus had applied to his check

marks [on our PowerPoint presentation],

we stuck our chins in the air, imperious.”

In two chapters following the denoue-

ment of Petraeus’ governance efforts,

Chayes mines 16th- through 18th-century