Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

In This Review

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security
By Sarah Chayes
W. W. Norton & Company, 2015
272 pp. $26.95

As a journalist covering the fall of the Taliban, and later as an aid worker, entrepreneur, and military adviser in Afghanistan, Chayes slowly uncovered the layers of graft and corruption that make up the Afghan state: patronage, kickbacks, payoffs, protection rackets, stolen cash, and smuggled goods. Chayes argues that Afghanistan is not a failed or failing state but rather a “vertically integrated criminal syndicate” that operates according to its own perverse political logic. Its objective is to enrich the ruling elite. Her argument is not that Afghan society or culture is intrinsically corrupt. But as it currently exists, the Afghan system makes the rule of law and honest government impossible. Chayes points to diplomatic, financial, and intelligence tools that outsiders could use to fight extreme corruption, but the challenge seems overwhelming. Indeed, U.S. and European military and humanitarian officials understand the problem, but more often than not, they end up as enablers of the corruption, working through intermediaries who are themselves part of the racket. Still, at various points, Chayes refers to classic political thinkers—Machiavelli, most notably—to make an essential and somewhat more optimistic point: corruption is the natural temptation of rulers, but it is often what ultimately brings them down.

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