Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

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9780393239461: Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

A former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff explains how government’s oldest problem is its greatest destabilizing force.

The world is blowing up. Every day a new blaze seems to ignite: the bloody implosion of Iraq and Syria; the East-West standoff in Ukraine; abducted schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. Is there some thread tying these frightening international security crises together? In a riveting account that weaves history with fast-moving reportage and insider accounts from the Afghanistan war, Sarah Chayes identifies the unexpected link: corruption.

Since the late 1990s, corruption has reached such an extent that some governments resemble glorified criminal gangs, bent solely on their own enrichment. These kleptocrats drive indignant populations to extremes―ranging from revolution to militant puritanical religion. Chayes plunges readers into some of the most venal environments on earth and examines what emerges: Afghans returning to the Taliban, Egyptians overthrowing the Mubarak government (but also redesigning Al-Qaeda), and Nigerians embracing both radical evangelical Christianity and the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. In many such places, rigid moral codes are put forth as an antidote to the collapse of public integrity.

The pattern, moreover, pervades history. Through deep archival research, Chayes reveals that canonical political thinkers such as John Locke and Machiavelli, as well as the great medieval Islamic statesman Nizam al-Mulk, all named corruption as a threat to the realm. In a thrilling argument connecting the Protestant Reformation to the Arab Spring, Thieves of State presents a powerful new way to understand global extremism. And it makes a compelling case that we must confront corruption, for it is a cause―not a result―of global instability.

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From the Author:

Dear readers:
 
Thanks very much for visiting this page, and for your interest in Thieves of State.  I wrote this book to address a dumbfounding impasse: the inability of senior U.S. officials to make the connection between acute and abusive corruption and dramatic global upheavals, from the rise of violent extremism to the revolutions of the Arab Spring or Ukraine.  What Thieves of State does is take you with me, so you can experience for yourself not just the abuse and humiliation of everyday corruption in many countries, but also the inner workings of the U.S. government as it reached a decision not to address the problem.

We'll also take a fascinating historical detour, for history has much to teach us about how people have grappled with these issues - and about how similar their responses have been across time and culture.  We'll detail hard-nosed options for different approaches, and we'll take a glance in the mirror.
 
It is an unusual book: no dry, expository policy-wonk analysis, rather a riveting story that will keep you engaged.  But you'll also find plenty of thought-provoking, even sometimes provocative, analysis.  I hope that you like it, and that you will let me know your thoughts either way.

From the Inside Flap:

An Excerpt From
THIEVES OF STATE
by Sarah Chayes
Reprinted here with permission.

The question of pursuing a serious anticorruption policy was finally put to rest in January 2011.  The battle was waged in the margins of an interagency document called "Objective 2015."  It had occurred to someone that the U.S. government really ought to have a picture of what it was trying to achieve in Afghanistan - what the country would need to look like by the end of 2014 if it were to weather the withdrawal of international troops without imploding.
 
The document was an embarrassment.  Just the grammatical errors in the first paragraph made me flinch.  Rather than identify true minimal requirements for Afghanistan to survive without international troops, it cut down ambitions to fit what was deemed "achievable" - whether or not such goals were sufficient to ensure Afghanistan could continue to exist.
 
It seemed to me, for example, that for the Afghan government to last, motivations for joining the insurgency had to diminish.  Afghans had better think more highly of their government by 2015 than they did in 2011.  Yet in the document, the very modest goal of an upward trend in Afghans' confidence in their government was not listed as essential to mission success.  It was considered only a "nice-to-have."
 
The real anticorruption fight, however, was not over such fundamentals.  It played out in the fine print of the document's "implementation guidelines."  Over the furious dissent of mid-level Justice Department (DoJ) officials, seconded by the Joint Staff - but not by their own chief, Attorney General Eric Holder - the documents barred DoJ attorneys from mentoring anticorruption cases.  They could do generalized capacity building, but they could not help shepherd specific cases against specific Afghan government officials.  The investigations units, even if they were able to continue functioning, would never be able to bring a case to court.  The courageous anticorruption prosecutors could never hope for backup from U.S. officials if they were intimidated, harassed, or demoted.
 
The gavel had come down.  By way of an apparently insignificant detail buried deep in an interagency document - a few words of guidance to DoJ attorneys - the U.S. decision to turn a blind eye to Afghan corruption was finally spelled out.
 
 
NOT TILL the spring of 2013 did the penny drop as to what had prompted Petraeus's sudden change of heart in the summer of 2010 - and ultimately, what made the U.S. government shrink from addressing corruption in Afghanistan.  On April 28, Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times reported that the CIA had been paying millions of dollars per year, in cash, to President Karzai.  Toward the end of his article was the nugget of information that told the whole story.
 
The CIA's bagman was Muhammad Zia Salehi - that aide to Karzai who had been arrested, and then quickly released, in the summer of 2010.  U.S. officials had walked into a circular firing squad.  Salehi, the subject of the U.S. government's corruption  test case, was also the U.S. government's intermediary for cash payments to Karzai.  The choice of this target may have been deliberate - an effort to flush out into the open the profound contradiction at the heart of U.S. policy.
 
Two senior U.S. officials told me later that throughout the investigation of Salehi, the planning for the arrest, and his liberation within a few hours, CIA personnel had remained silent about their relationship with him.  Even afterward, despite strong words at Principals' Committee meetings and that Joint Staff "top twenty" list, the CIA never provided the U.S. ambassador or the key cabinet secretaries with the names of the Afghans it was paying.  The station chief in Kabul continued to hold private meetings with Karzai, with no other U.S. officials present.
 
In other words, a secret CIA agenda - which involved enabling the very summit of Afghanistan's kleptocracy - was in direct conflict with the anticorruption agenda.  And with no one explicitly arbitrating this contradiction, the CIA's agenda won out.
 
After those first few weeks in command, Petraeus veered hard away from governance efforts and devoted himself to targeted killing, which he intensified considerably.  Targeted killing of individual terrorist suspects is the special domain of the CIA, which Petraeus left Kabul to run - until his tenure there was cut short by an extramarital affair that had germinated in the Yellow Building at ISAF headquarters.
 
The Obama Administration, sickened by the cost in lives and resources that the counterinsurgency approach was exacting, and perhaps uncomfortable with the power and discretion that large-scale military operations place in the hands of the brass, turned increasingly toward special operations and drone warfare to counter security threats.  Targeted, technologically advanced, secretive killing, over which the president had direct control, increased after 2010, spreading to Yemen and other theaters.
 
But the point officials missed in making this shift - and in letting the priorities generated by this strategy trump governance objectives - is that targeted killings still represent a military response to a problem that is fundamentally political and economic in nature: a problem that is rooted in the conduct of government.  The current U.S. approach sends a message, wittingly or not, to people who are often driven to violence by the abusively corrupt practices of their ruling cliques, and by frustration at seeing their legitimate grievance systematically ignored.  The message seems to be: your grievances are, in fact, of no account.  They will not be heard.

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