THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Corruption As a
Foreign Policy IssueThieves 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
hard to make
central element of
By winter 2009,
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