Can Corruption Lose Wars?


By Arnold R. Isaacs


February 19, 2015


In the closing years of the Vietnam war, I traveled to a province on the Cambodian border where I heard this story:

Trade with the enemy was rife, and profitable. Most goods were delivered overland or by river from government-held territory to middlemen in the border region, who sent them on into Communist-held areas on the Cambodian side. South Vietnamese Navy river patrol boats were heavily involved, regularly traveling upriver from their base to the border area carrying fuel, medicine, and other supplies. On their way, the boats passed by an outpost manned by a platoon of the district-level militia known as PF, for Popular Forces. Angered at seeing supplies heading to enemy troops who might someday fire on their position, the militiamen one day stopped one of the Navy boats and confiscated its cargo. A day or two later, a Navy truck pulled up to the gate of their outpost. Training a .50 caliber machinegun on the 20 or so PF soldiers inside, the sailors ordered them to climb into the truck and drove them to the Navy base downstream. There they held the militiamen captive for 36 hours or so, beating some of them, and then sent them back to their outpost with a stern warning not to interfere with the Navy’s business dealings again.

That story did not come from political dissidents or war critics. The person who told it was a U.S. intelligence officer stationed in the provincial capital. Sitting next to him as he spoke was the National Police commander for the province, who shamefacedly nodded and confirmed the details. He added that the Navy riverboat crews were not the only government forces involved in the lucrative trade. Goods destined for enemy territory were also shipped to the border in convoys of army vehicles, with the connivance of (and rich profits for) officers up to division commander or higher. The illicit trade was protected from very high levels, the police commander said, and there was nothing he could do about it. This, it’s worth noting, was after ten years — ten years! — in which teams of U.S. military advisers were attached to virtually every South Vietnamese military unit, and every bullet and every gallon of gasoline and every dollar of soldiers’ pay (all of those in vastly greater quantities than any resources the enemy had) was paid for by the U.S. government.

I had only been in Vietnam for a few weeks when that conversation occurred, and at the time I did not come close to grasping the full meaning of what I heard. Over the next three years, which were also the last three years of the war, I learned how corruption became structural and why it was so damaging. Those river boat crews and army truck drivers in Vietnam I had heard about were not in business for themselves. They split their profits with their commanders, who in turn sent a cut to the commanders above them.  At each level those commanders, and their equivalents in civil government, had paid bribes to get their posts, and in return they and the profits from their illegal activities were protected up to the top reaches of the regime. Thus corruption didn’t only anger and alienate people at the bottom. It subverted the leadership up and down the chain of command. Those officers and officials were not there to defeat the enemy or provide government services, but to continue profiting from corruption. In that system there was no place for officers and officials who wanted to fight honestly for their country, and to earn the trust and loyalty of their soldiers and citizens. Those were perhaps the most demoralized of all. By the time I flew out of Vietnam in a Marine evacuation helicopter the day before the war ended, I was convinced that corruption was the single biggest reason for that defeat. I do not have the same first-hand knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan, but abundant evidence leaves no possible doubt that the dynamic in those wars is similar, and that if the U.S.-supported war efforts in those countries fall short of their goals, corruption will have been a major cause.

Parallels between Vietnam and present wars turn up all the time, as when Iraq’s new prime minister acknowledged a few months ago that the country’s military payroll listed 50,000 soldiers who were getting paid but were not actually serving — the equivalent of four Iraqi Army divisions. Precisely the same practice was endemic in Vietnam, where there were two principal variants: “Ghost soldiers,” men who’d been killed but whose deaths were not reported, so their commanders could keep collecting and pocketing their salaries, and “flower soldiers” who stayed home with their families and kicked back their pay to their superiors. Not uncommonly, a South Vietnamese battalion would be listed on order-of-battle charts with a strength of 300 men, but only a half or a third of that number were actually present for duty. The consequences for military capability are obvious. In Iraq, for example, when Islamic State forces seized the city of Mosul last June, it has been reported that the real number of troops defending the city was less than half as many as were listed on official rosters.

By the time I flew out of Vietnam in a Marine evacuation helicopter the day before the war ended, I was convinced that corruption was the single biggest reason for that defeat.

Or consider the practice of extortion from civilians moving around the country or trying to get ordinary government services. Anyone driving in Afghanistan, for example, is invariably stopped at frequent checkpoints where police or soldiers demand a bribe — payable in afghanis, dollars, or in some areas, opium — before letting a vehicle proceed. That and many other forms of corruption are a “daily issue” in people’s lives, says Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American who returned to her homeland and spent six years there as a journalist. Families set aside money in their household budgets to pay bribes because “otherwise nothing gets done.” In government offices, Nawa told me, the customary code phrase from a bureaucrat expecting a bribe is, “where are my sweets?” She and her husband sometimes responded by handing over an actual box of chocolates. The officials “weren’t pleased.” She could get away with that ploy because she was a U.S. citizen and a journalist, Nawa thinks; Afghans would have had no choice but to pay the expected bribe.

Nawa’s descriptions would be completely familiar to any Vietnamese or Cambodian who lived through those countries’ wars. The checkpoint shakedowns, for example, recall the “toll booths” on one of Cambodia’s principal highways, where soldiers collected money from passing vehicles. The toll system was set up and run by the wife of the division commander in that region. That was “common knowledge” in the American embassy, recalls Alan Armstrong, who served two tours as a U.S. Army attache in Cambodia, “but no one did anything about it” — even though U.S. funds were the sole support of the Cambodian government army. He added: “When the result of our backing is the creation of corrupt wealthy I wouldn’t fight for such a regime. I don’t think that I would be alone in that sentiment.”

Fariba Nawa’s conclusion about Afghanistan is related: “There is no trust between the government and Afghans.” Both comments illustrate why corruption has such disastrous effects in counterinsurgency wars. If citizens see no reason to fight for their government and have no trust in its representatives, it is difficult to see how counterinsurgency strategies like those the United States claims to be pursuing in Iraq and Afghanistan can possibly succeed.

The similarities between Vietnam and current wars are not only in the ways corruption is practiced. A more dismaying parallel is that the U.S. government, even while paying the bills, has managed to do so little about those practices. Official reports such as the 2013 final report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), or the yearly progress reviews on Afghanistan submitted to Congress by the Defense Department, repeatedly list corruption as a significant problem but give almost no examples of successful efforts to control it. When “progress” is reported, it is typically an announcement of a new campaign or agency or some similarly cosmetic action, not any concrete result. A 2013 State Department report aimed at potential private investors, acknowledging that Iraq appears on various international rankings as the most corrupt country in the Middle East, could find only this to say about the American role: “The USG is implementing several programs to address corruption at the institutional level, with some positive impact.”

One reason American officials tend to let corruption slide is that tackling it can complicate relations with the government they are trying to support. In her new book Thieves of State, author Sarah Chayes gives a classic example, describing how an attempt by U.S. officials to intensify anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan flamed out because the first high-level Afghan they targeted for a showcase prosecution turned out to be on the CIA’s payroll. Despite solid evidence of corruption, the case was quickly dropped, and so was the program to strengthen anti-corruption activities.

In the last six months, both Iraq and Afghanistan have come under new national leaders. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani have both promised to fight corruption. Whether they are truly able to bring about change remains to be seen, but regaining the public’s trust will not happen quickly.

By coincidence, only days before starting to write this essay, I met a former U.S. army officer who had done a couple of tours in Afghanistan, one of them commanding an infantry company. When I asked if he’d had any experience or any thoughts to share about corruption, his answer went approximately like this: If an insurgent carrying a shotgun is outside your house trying to break down your door, you’re not thinking about the police or how good or bad they are. You’ll be getting out your own weapon to kill the guy with the shotgun before he kills you. That’s where I was, he added, concentrating on his company’s mission and on not getting himself or any of his soldiers killed, not thinking about Afghanistan’s problems.

It was a logical position for a front-line infantry officer to take, and I didn’t argue with him. But that doesn’t mean corruption was irrelevant to his situation, whether he gave it any thought or not. Corruption, I could have responded, was very likely one of the reasons that guy picked up a shotgun to begin with. If there were more trust between Afghans and their security forces — if soldiers or policemen were seen more as protectors and less as predators — there’s a better chance that someone would have reported the guy with the shotgun before he got to your door. And consider this: If my new acquaintance’s superiors in Kabul and Washington had seen more clearly why corruption was so damaging for the U.S. effort, and if they had figured out a way to aid Afghanistan without nourishing it, the war there might have never reached the point where he and his company had to be there in the first place. That is a lesson that could have been taught by the war I witnessed. Sadly, we seem not to have learned it.



Arnold Isaacs Cicero Magazine

About the Author

Arnold R. Isaacs is an author and writer. His books include Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghost, and Its Legacy.





Jeff Nusser / February 19, 2015 at 12:27 pm /Reply

Mr Isaacs,
What we westerners consider corruption, the Iraqis and Afghanis consider tradition. We can neither change the way they do business nor other parts of their culture.


Arnold R. Isaacs / February 21, 2015 at 4:02 pm /Reply

I have heard this argument many times. In my experience, the Americans who repeat it have been listening to the extorters, not the extorted. The people who gain power and profit from corruption may tell you (and themselves, perhaps) that it’s “our way of life,” an ineradicable and accepted tradition. From many conversations in many places I can say with certainty that if you ask people who don’t have power and who are paying the extortion, not pocketing it, they will NOT tell you it’s their tradition or culture. You might have heard that excuse from a Cambodian general in his villa in Phnom Penh. You would not hear it from a wounded soldier whose family had to buy pain-killing drugs in the black market because the U.S.-supplied medicine that he should have been given was sold off by corrupt officials. That soldier may not have had any hope that the system would change, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t deeply hate it, along with a large majority of the Cambodian population.

Also, whatever bribery or extortion may have been practiced in earlier times, the kind of corruption that comes with a significant U.S. intervention is NOT ancient or traditional in any sense of the word. When corruption is fueled by an influx of U.S. dollars it reaches a level that people have not experienced and could not even have imagined in any previous era. It enriches the corrupt and demoralizes the victims to a much greater extent than in the past. And thus to an extent a lot of U.S. officials have difficulty realizing, far from being a part of their history and culture, the corruption people see came with the Americans and has an American face.

A suggestion to Mr. Nusser, if he happens to see this comment, or to anyone else who thinks corruption is just an accepted tradition: open Sarah Chayes’s new book Thieves of State and read the first couple of pages. They will show how Afghans really feel about corruption and why it is so dangerous. (Then read the rest of the book. Not a comforting read, but a powerfully convincing one.)

Arnold R. Isaacs