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Sarah Chayes battles a worldwide scourge: deep-rooted corruption

The former reporter and social entrepreneur in Afghanistan is now trying to bring about a sea change in US foreign policy.

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    Sarah Chayes analyzes how government corruption hinders human progress.
    Courtesy of Kaveh Sardar
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Sarah Chayes bounds around the corner to greet a guest who’s just stepped off the elevator at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Before joining the international think tank, Ms. Chayes was a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio and  was assigned in 2001 to cover post-Taliban Afghanistan. But she soon decided to put aside her reporting career in favor of making a difference in a different way.

First she lived as a civilian in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, where she launched Arghand, a sustainable soap and skincare cooperative in Kandahar Province that created jobs for impoverished women.

But in recent years Chayes has become a key player in the attempt to bring about a sea change in US foreign policy by showing how what some see as an innocuous crime – corruption – is actually a serious threat to international security. She has seen it at work not only in Afghanistan but in other places with violent insurgencies, such as Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq.

Within the past two years, Chayes has influenced a paradigm shift in US foreign policy, Nathaniel Heller, cofounder of Global Integrity, an independent, nonprofit organization tracking governance and corruption trends around the world, told the Monitor. “She singlehandedly got a crucial dialogue going at the highest levels of government on corruption.... She opened up a space in politics for dialogue and debate regarding corruption as a serious threat to international security.”

According to several diplomats, Chayes also has affected the diplomatic rules of engagement. James Wasserstrom, an anticorruption officer at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a former colleague of Chayes, points to the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis, an influential report that collects, aggregates, analyzes, and disseminates lessons learned and best practices across the range of US military operations. The 2014 JCOA report states corruption is a direct threat to the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state.

“This is proof that Sarah’s efforts are working,” says Mr. Wasserstrom. “The findings of JCOA will change the way the US intervenes in other countries with regards to corruption.”

Chayes began forming her views through personal experience. At the time she was living in Afghanistan the government “was really a criminal organization masquerading as a government,” she says. “Its objective was amassing personal wealth, and it was doing this very well.”

The United States had aligned itself financially, militarily, and diplomatically with a corrupt system by working through corrupt proxies and providing them with funds and other assets, she says. This made the US no longer a neutral player in the eyes of those being harmed by corrupt practices.

In 2007 Chayes wrote a book, “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban,” that showed how the corruption and “warlordism” in Afghanistan was supported by the US. It was read by academics and by those at high levels of the US military.

Lt. Col. Anthony G. DeMartino served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and has been on the staffs of Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus, who once headed US forces in Afghanistan.

“I read ‘The Punishment of Virtue’ when I first arrived in Afghanistan,” he told the Monitor. “The book was so insightful that I invited Sarah to our unit to discuss ways we could better work with our Afghan partners. We found that over the course of the year, a lot of what she recommended and emphasized to us ended up being accurate and greatly assisted our mission in Afghanistan.”

A 2009 incident helped to crystallize Chayes’s understanding of corruption. She began to see a direct correlation between systemic corruption and the eruption of radical insurgent groups in various countries.

“When civilians feel they have no recourse, when shakedowns, bribery, and government impunity are the status quo, everyday people can become indignant and full of rage,” she says.“Civilians can’t turn to their own governments out of fear of being extorted, abused, or, in some cases, killed.”

In her book Chayes tells of a retired Afghan police officer named Nurallah, who describes a humiliating shakedown his brother received from corrupt Afghan police. “[Now if] I see someone plant an IED [improvised explosive device] on the road, and then I see a police truck coming ... I will not warn them,” Nurallah says.

Chayes believes that the corruption of local governments radicalized local Afghan populations, turning them against their government, and at times, to the Taliban insurgents. “Every place there’s a violent religious insurgency, there is severe corruption,” Chayes says.

“After the Soviet invasion [of Afghanistan], which cost a million Afghan lives over the course of the 1980s, followed by five years of gut-wrenching civil war and another six of rule by the Taliban, who twisted religious injunctions into instruments of social control, Afghans looked to the United States – a nation famous for its rule of law – to help them build a responsive, accountable government,” Chayes wrote in a Washington Post article. “Instead, we gave power back to corrupt gunslingers who had been repudiated years before. If they helped us chase al-Qaida, we didn’t look too hard at their governing style.”

Chayes later began working for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was then heading US forces in Afghanistan. He approved her to launch the first international anticorruption task force in Afghanistan, jointly led by the US military and the US embassy. The task force strove to curtail US involvement in government corruption in Afghanistan, yet ultimately could not stop it.

A congressional staff member, who requested to remain anonymous, calls Chayes as “altruistic as they come for people in D.C. She’s exactly the opposite of self-interested people. She’s doing [this work] specifically because she thinks it’s of value. She’s an invaluable intellectual.”

In 2010, Chayes became a special adviser to Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, providing insights on US policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arab Spring democratic uprisings. In 2010 and 2011, a discussion that included President Obama, the secretaries of State and Defense, and other decisionmakers was held on how to set an anticorruption policy for Afghanistan.

In his final testimony to the US Senate in September 2011 before stepping down, Mullen pointed to systemic corruption as the No. 1 challenge undermining US efforts in the region: Chayes’s issue had finally entered the conversation of high-level US decisionmakers.

The ill effects of corruption continue to be studied. “Traditionally [corruption] has been seen as a human rights [issue], but now it’s coming up as an economic issue and [a] preventing-violent-extremism issue,” says Tom Perriello, special representative for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the blueprint for US rules of engagement for the diplomatic and development efforts of the US government.

“Perceptions of unfairness, particularly in a kleptocracy, is a common theme that terrorist groups recruit on,” he says.

Adds DeMartino, “Sarah is a firebrand. She makes an impassioned argument. She directly and indirectly influenced senior leaders in and out of uniform. It’s impressive to see what she’s accomplished....

“She absolutely made progress. Corruption is now part of the discussion. And Sarah gets a lot of credit for that in both the Defense and the State [Departments].”

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