Thursday is payday in Kabul, where most workers are paid in cash. As they head home, many are stopped by police, sometimes more than once, and shaken down for money. This weekly tragedy isn’t just a source of misery and humiliation for the people of Kabul; it also undermines U.S. and NATO efforts to build stability and legitimacy in Afghanistan. Afghans in the capital and elsewhere have come to associate the police with corruption, not safety, order, and other social goods.
After a decade of U.S. forces on the ground, the one thing on which everyone agrees is that we haven’t made enough progress in building a stable, widely supported government that can protect its people from terror and other depredations. The current Washington preoccupation with “exit strategies” crowds out the more important question of what our legacy will be. As security functions are turned over to the Afghan government, the problems stemming from corruption and lack of professional integrity are urgent. No matter how fatigued American citizens and leaders may reasonably be by our efforts in Afghanistan, it is important to recognize that we have time for one last shot at leaving behind in that beleaguered nation professional, trustworthy police and military.
Inculcating respect for the rule of law and a culture of professional integrity among the security forces we train is among the most important things we can do in the time remaining. As hard as it is to change cultural norms, even self-destructive ones, much depends on our doing just that. What’s at stake is, in the short term, Afghanistan’s ability to maintain a functioning government, and, in the long term, our ability to rely on this country that we’ve poured so much blood and treasure into as a regional ally.
Of course, Afghanistan isn’t the only country where corruption is a problem among U.S.-trained foreign security forces. The problem is widespread among the military and police in the 50-plus nations whose forces we train. Most of these allies are fragile states. They are striving for justice and reform in the face of high levels of institutional corruption and scant appreciation of the rule of law. We may be excellent at teaching police and soldiers good marksmanship and various technical security subjects. But those we train rarely appreciate the critical importance of integrity and lawfulness to a functioning government. Recruits don’t just pick up those principles during basic police and military training by being around Americans. We need to ensure that they understand whom they serve, and how to act with professional integrity. Adding this dimension to the training the U.S. and NATO provide should be a top priority.
The central reason we spend billions training foreign forces is that we need competent, trustworthy allies. They are another line of defense in a world that is too big and too complicated for the U.S. to go it alone. Our security depends, in part, on their ability to help monitor and combat threats from coalitions of jihadists, organized-crime groups, and armed despots. We also need them to help us maintain regional balances of power vis-à-vis China, Russia, and Iran. Training foreign security personnel builds relationships between their military and police forces and ours. But if you can’t trust them, the fact that they shoot straight isn’t an adequate return on investment.
“Can we do it?” is a fair question. Without overstating the feasibility of changing a culture, even in nascent security bureaucracies, there are examples of successful efforts to enhance public integrity in places ranging from the formerly Mafia-controlled Sicily to the once-crime-ridden Hong Kong. This approach is now being applied in Colombia and Mexico with U.S. assistance. Indeed, there have been some promising initiatives in Afghanistan already, led by Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak. Wardak, who fully comprehends how internal enemies benefit from the government’s weakness, has made anti-corruption reforms within the Ministry of Defense a signature battle, and he is fighting to make the MoD an example for the rest of the country.
Personal experience tells me that the U.S. can make a difference — if we commit to it. The National Strategy Information Center, a small NGO, has worked with foreign partners for a decade to develop anti-corruption programs for local police and military forces. There are now scalable, sustainable curricula that provide practical skills and incentives for resisting bribes, treating citizens respectfully, and building community bonds. People who trust their police and military are more likely to provide them with needed information and support. Of such small steps is stability built.
But can we afford it? Actually, integrity training is a bargain. The cost amounts to a few million dollars per country — “decimal dust” in NATO’s multibillion-dollar budget. U.S. and NATO training leaders have objected to the cost in time spent. But we have trained too many thousands of foreign officers to shoot without having confidence that they know what they are supposed to defend, and why, for that complaint to hold a lot of water.
Finally, there is huge political benefit in doing this. Like it or not, we are engaged in a long-term competition for the cooperation and support of the world’s interconnected peoples. Our rule-of-law-based societies are pitted against cultures of violent extremism and criminal, corrupt elites. It doesn’t help our cause when officers we train are linked to corruption, human-rights violations, or military coups. A culture of lawfulness is a key foundation for functional democracy and economic development. This is one of those times when U.S. interests and values coincide.
— Roy Godson is president of the National Strategy Information Center and emeritus professor of government, Georgetown University.