Monday, July 13, 2015

Somebody learned something from Afghanistan

If they'd been born in each other's countries, they might have swapped places.

In 2011, a brave Afghan woman leader, Malalai Joya, toured the U.S. explaining to peace movement audiences that the Karzai government imposed by our invasion had merely replaced the Taliban with rule by thieving warlords who robbed and oppressed the people.

In the same year, Sarah Chayes, a former National Public Radio reporter who worked in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009 on economic and political development, was touring countries where the Arab Spring uprisings were unsettling long standing power arrangements as a special advisor to Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. And she, too, was trying with very little success to explain to anyone with the power to make change just how kleptocracy was giving the lie to every project embarked on by U.S. forces.

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security is Chayes' complex statement of the simple conclusion her unusual life trajectory has led her to: the indignities and injustices of "acute and systemic corruption" provide the sparks that turn habitual discontents into violent eruptions of protest, of revolution. When minor functionaries can demand bribes as a matter of right, when no one's property is safe from expropriation by some politician or landlord, when even the smallest business transactions required greased palms, when the most ordinary tasks require accepting humiliating subordination to crooks, eventually people will rise up.

The central insight from Chayes' years of work in Afghanistan is that, in a kleptocracy, government is just organized extortion.

Karzai was not, as conventional wisdom had it, doling out patronage. He wasn't distributing money downward to buy off potential political rivals. If anything -- with exceptions especially before elections -- the reverse was true. Subordinate officials were paying off Karzai or his apparatus. What the top of the system provided in return was, first, unfettered permission to extract resources for personal gain, and second, protection from repercussions.

... The whole system depended on faithful discharge, by senior officials, of their duty to protect their subordinates. The implicit contract held, much as it does within the Mafia, no matter how inconsequential the subordinate might be. Every level paid the level above, and the men at the top had to extend their protection right to the bottom.

... what if the Afghan government wasn't really trying to govern? ... Perhaps GIRoA [military-speak for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] could best be understood not as a government but as a vertically integrated criminal organization -- or a few such loosely structured organizations, allies but rivals, coexisting uneasily -- whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of state but rather extracting resources for personal gain.

... I was often asked, moreover, why it was so hard to find honest people to serve in government. If that government was actually a crime syndicate in disguise, the dearth of good people was no surprise. Mafias select for criminality, by turning violation of the law into a rite of passage, by rewarding it, by hurting high-minded individuals who might make trouble. An absence of integrity within this system did not mean Afghans as a people were intrinsically or culturally corrupt. ... constructive men and women had been stripped out -- and by now might prefer to stay clear. "No one would dirty his clothes getting near this government," a Kandahar-area farmer exclaimed to me once.

... That was the Afghan government. It was not incapable. ... Governing -- the exercise that attracted so much international attention -- was really just a front activity.

Having come to these insights, Chayes achieved next to nothing to help Afghans. Some U.S. generals, including Mullen, did act as her patrons for occasional periods. She had the opportunity to travel much of the world -- Tunisia and Egypt (she speaks Arabic), Nigeria, Uzbekistan -- and test her understanding that it is corruption, not ideology or religion, which ignites violent upheavals, expressed in each instance within each country's culture. In this book she also interweaves what sages in the Western European and Islamic traditions wrote about bad governance and corruption. She throws off some interesting historical speculations about what enabled societies grounded in the European enlightenment to substitute law for the more historically common rule by kleptocrats. And she even dares to ask whether contemporary financial oligarchs in the United States might not be succeeding in restoring the dominion of arbitrary pillage.

This is a far better, more subtle, well argued, interesting book than I've conveyed here. It resists summarization.

It is very hard to unstick significantly how I understand the world. I've been working on constructing a framework within which I make sense of events for a lifetime. Greatly to my surprise, this book has moved some of my basic understandings. I think most readers might experience a similar shift. Read it and see.
Inevitably, I do have two caveats to this endorsement.

Chayes describes her repeated experience of more observant U.S. and European soldiers and development workers in Afghanistan who could see the society's corruption, but dismissed its significance with a breezy assertion: "that's just how these people do things." Since she likes and respects (some) Afghans, she was able to look beyond that cultural dismissal. But she never raises what seems obvious to me as a white person working to be attuned to white supremacy. I am all too reminded of pundits and bad sociologists who ascribe the miseries of poor brown and black neighborhoods to a "culture of poverty." When we go abroad to conquer, we take our national racist assumptions with us.

And then, how can I trust what Chayes sees when she is not explicitly critical of that national drive to go abroad to conquer? U.S. forces never had any business setting up a "government" in Afghanistan. We had a right to demand that bin Laden and his confederates be turned over for trial. But it was up to Afghans to clean up their corner of the world. No good has come from our rooting around in what we never understood and, after much pain and (mostly Afghan) suffering, we decided not to pay for.

I get that Chayes is striving for results. She includes a significant chapter called "remedies." But I wonder whether without more root and branch critique of the international power structure whether there can be remedies. That's for us to find out.
I read this book by ear. Chayes narrates her own text wonderfully; she is determined to share what she has learned and I have great respect for that.

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