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In Praise of Corruption

Terry Glavin, the cofounder of the Canadian-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and a firm supporter of Western intervention in Afghanistan, tells a joke that has made the rounds in Kabul. The United Nations, sick of the corruption that is rife in the Afghan government, demands that Karzai clean things up. “Of course, of course,” Karzai replies. Then he whispers, “How much will you pay me to do it?”

Read almost any article criticizing the war in Afghanistan for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, or The New Republic and you will quickly come upon the complaint that the Afghan government is hopelessly corrupt: that the United States is in bed with a gang of thieves and drug dealers. “Karzai and corruption” is practically a trope of public debate. Google the two terms and you get over one million results. And the recent Wikileaks dump has only reinforced this idea with its stories of bribery and extortion.

But forgive me if I register some skepticism about the motives of these critics. I think many of them care less about corruption than about getting out of Afghanistan, and they are fixated on corruption simply as a way to further that cause. Even more important, I think they do not understand a crucial point: Corruption can in fact help us in our battle to achieve a stable Afghanistan.

I’m told that if you want to buy a house in Italy, you had better know whom you have to pay off. That’s probably true in at least 50 countries around the world, and I’m willing to bet that Afghanistan is one of them. I’m equally sure that the tribal chiefs who are our allies against the Taliban maintain their positions through a system of patronage and payoffs. How can I be so sure? Not because I’m an expert on the ethnic communities of Afghanistan, but because I know something about American history.

In the nineteenth century, American politics ran on bribes, kickbacks, and payoffs. Before the Civil War, Andrew Jackson famously remarked: “If there is a job that a Democrat can’t do, then abolish the job.” During the postwar years, patronage became systematized into a comedy of hypocrisy. Politicians out of office would routinely accuse the ins of rewarding their friends, only to do exactly the same thing when they got the chance. Washington, Henry Adams declared, was “one dirty cesspool of vulgar corruption.”

There were good-government types, of course, but they were pathetically ineffectual, largely because they were self-righteous elitists out of touch with reality. Blinded by their own good intentions, they failed to see that corruption benefited not only the politicos who used their power for personal gain, but also ordinary people who relied on the bosses to help them with their daily problems.

One of our best historians, Richard Hofstadter, wrote about the reformers: “Single-minded concern for honesty in public service is a luxury of the middle and upper classes. The masses do not care deeply about the honesty of public servants unless it promises to lead to some human fruition, some measurable easing of the difficulties of life. If a choice is necessary, the populace of an American city will choose kindness over honesty.” In 1884, these bumbling, out-of-touch elitists had a delightfully comical label attached to them—Mugwump. The complaints you hear about corruption in Afghanistan these days are emanating from our modern Mugwumps.

Recently, I came upon a gruesome but very specific way in which corruption benefited people in need. A writer in Tablet magazine was describing the Nazis’ Starachowice slave labor camp, and explaining that this camp had a higher survival rate than other similar camps. (The author’s mother was one of the survivors.) The reason, he said, was that the camp was run by civilian managers, who could be bribed, and not by the SS, who were too idealistic to accept money to save Jews. We have to hope that in Afghanistan we can find members of the Taliban who are corrupt enough to take payoffs to change sides. (Glavin, for one, thinks this is possible.)

But if corruption can facilitate our efforts in Afghanistan, why did Richard Holbrooke recently go before Congress to announce that “rampant corruption” is the Taliban’s “No. 1 recruiting tool,” and why is Washington now forcing a confrontation with Karzai to get him to clean house? One possibility is that the Obama administration really is under the Mugwumpish illusion that we can end corruption in Afghanistan. If so, that should concern us all.

But there is a likelier explanation. Holbrooke has been in the game for a long time; he is used to dealing with bad guys. That means he knows there is corruption that works for you and corruption that works against you. (In the nineteenth century, the Tammany bosses made a distinction between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft.”) The corruption that works for you consists of payoffs we make to win allies and buy loyalty. (In some situations, it’s called foreign aid.) The kind that works against you are the bribes we pay without getting anything in return—money that just goes down a rathole.

Under some circumstances, ratholes can be considered a cost of doing business, but in Afghanistan, where blood is being shed, the American people are paying attention, and like anyone else, they don’t enjoy being played for suckers. So the wrong kind of corruption can damage the war effort. Insofar as the Afghan government refuses to deliver on the promises our money has purchased, it has to be challenged. It has to be made to understand that a failure to take at least some steps toward reform will eventually produce unpleasant consequences, as American support, already wavering, dwindles down to a few hardcore neocons gathered together in a single room. All of which is to say, Washington’s current fight against corruption is mainly about American, not Afghan, hearts and minds.

There’s nothing elevating, or even especially satisfying, about any of this. You can, if you want, call it the ethics of Tony Soprano. But so what? New Jersey probably has a lot to teach us about how Afghanistan really works.

Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years. He has written frequently for The Book Review, as well as for other sections ofThe Times. His essays have also appeared in World AffairsThe American Interest,World Policy Journal, and Dissent.