To the Victor go the Spoils: Nation-building and the legacy of political corruption

CSPS Fellow Angela Gill discusses how American statebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed to prevent corruption.

Over the next few weeks, Americans will likely see significant changes in the top echelons of the administration, regardless of who wins the election. Yet, the average American probably does not give much thought to who occupies many of the appointed posts, with the exception of a few of the more visible ones. We largely assume political appointees have at least the requisite credentials to fill the roles, even if many get job offers to satisfy the president’s or party’s need to reward campaign contributors. We rarely consider this process as truly corrupt in the U.S., and the U.S. implemented this process in Afghanistan and Iraq in its statebuilding missions in the early 2000s. However, there it has had serious implications for the legitimacy of the governments and their ability to maintain stability. As we advised on institution building and relied on foreign actors’ advice, we inadvertently built political systems that entrenched corruption. These dynamics have resulted in significant negative ramifications for political stability.

As former National Security Adviser General Jim Jones (USMC, ret.) noted, in our haste to transfer authority in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we accepted whomever emerged as a leader and did not spend enough time ensuring the government was capable and legitimate. The repercussions of this strategy are real as they gave nascent and often unknown leaders, foreign-imposed legitimacy, yet less legitimacy where it mattered, in the state itself. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, assessing the prospects for the new Afghan government following the 2014 election, Mujib Mashal explains that Karzai never built trust in the cabinet given to him at the international conference in Bonn that established the new Afghan government after the initial defeat of the Taliban government. As a result, Karzai has had to balance power among political rivals and use a patronage system to garner loyalty.

Similarly, Iraq’s proportional representation system, which was designed mostly by U.S.-trusted Iraqi exiles, not only enabled election winners to stack civil service positions with loyalists but also further exacerbated ethnic and sectarian differences. Since the system elects parties rather than individuals, it fails to hold politicians accountable and entices parties to build or consolidate support by handing out government jobs. Since the United States wanted to avoid lengthy statebuilding missions and had little knowledge of the internal dynamics within the countries, it had to rely on the expertise of individuals who were relatively unknown and needed to build loyalty and legitimacy. In short, both the design of the systems and the recognition bestowed by U.S. and foreign officials created a system whereby personal power was increasingly important, and the manipulation of political appointments became the primary means of demonstrating and safeguarding this personal power.

This legacy of political corruption is hampering Iraq’s economy and leading to massive protests. An ABCNews reportquoted one protestor saying, “Our demands are against corrupt parties in power and against the failed parliament.” These protests came to a head in the so-called October Revolution in 2019 with calls to topple the government, leading to a government crackdown, the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis, and the resignation of the then-current Prime Minister Mahdi. Since the start of these protests a year ago, the new government has made many promises, including changing the electoral laws, but unless real change occurs, renewed protests marking the anniversary of last year’s movement as well as the conditions that spurred them threaten to continue to destabilize Iraq.

In Afghanistan, this same scenario is impeding the ability of the government to consolidate peace with the Taliban. Although the United States helped the Afghan government broker a National Unity Government in 2014 to avoid complete chaos after disputed elections that year, the two candidates who agreed to share power have taken advantage of the vagueness of the agreement and stacked government and security positions with allies. Thus, even though the potential for political manipulation to end as new elections brought in new elected officials, new agreements still reinforced similar actions. As a Crisis Group article explains, “Political partisanship has permeated every level of the security apparatus…undermining their capacity to counter a growing insurgency.” Moreover, the infighting threatens to weaken the peace process.

Though every country deals with various levels of corruption, the state-building processes in Afghanistan and Iraq have left a legacy that the U.S. understood to be a necessary evil in the beginning of the process. It was not anticipated, though, that this corruption would linger to such a degree that it would undermine American statebuilding and stabilization efforts entirely. In Iraq, political instability has enabled ISIS to resurge, Iran to increase its influence, and attacks against U.S. military personnel to increase. In Afghanistan, the failure to present a unified front against the Taliban undermines efforts to build peace and weakens efforts to rein in attacks against U.S. and partner security forces. Moreover, these realities coupled with the desire to withdraw troops leaves a real possibility of leaving failed or failing states — environments ripe for new or renewed issues to which the U.S. would need to respond. Ultimately, entrenched political corruption and the resulting political instability erodes U.S. strategic goals for both countries: stable, democratic states that can relatively manage their internal security and balance regional influencers such as Iran.

Angela Gill is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a BA in Political Science and a BS in Animal Science from North Carolina State University and a Master of Arts in International Relations from Webster University. She previously taught Arabic to servicemembers in support of OIF and conducted research for defense contracts for DARPA and the Office of Force Transformation. Her research interests include statebuilding, counterinsurgency, and the Middle East, and her dissertation focuses on the dynamics of U.S. empowerment of foreign leaders and political instability.

Photo can be found here.