(Reuters) - Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan in 2001 as a journalist, stayed on as a development worker and became an expert on the link between corruption and violent religious militancy described in her book “Thieves of State”.
The subtitle - “Why corruption threatens global security” - summarizes her view that United States support for corrupt Afghan politicians over the past decade fanned grassroots anger there and boosted support for the resurgent Taliban militants.
Although she became a special adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2009 and is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Chayes has struggled to convince Western officials that injustice may drive some people to religiously inspired violence.
Chayes spoke to Reuters by telephone from London during a recent visit to present her book there.
Q: You lived in Kandahar for most of the last decade. How did you make the link between corruption, religion and security?
A: My thesis derives from living in the milieu. I didn’t have Taliban friends, but everyone I knew did. By 2007, when the Taliban were in full re-expansion, everybody in Kandahar had an in-law or cousin who was a Talib. The connection was suggested to me by people who are essentially the recruitment pool. I saw people who were being recruited saying at least the Taliban did something about corruption.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The corruption of the Afghan government and the real and perceived role of Western interveners in enabling it drove people into the arms of the Taliban ... I spent five or six years trying to get Western interveners to see this. I told them if we don’t address the underlying drivers of the Taliban resurgence, you can kill all the Taliban you want and you won’t get anywhere. But I didn’t make the case sufficiently enough for people to change the policy.
Q: How is Afghanistan relevant to the rest of the world?
A: In a talk I gave in Germany in 2010 about narcotics in Afghanistan, I described the Afghan government as a vertically integrated criminal organization. I thought that was a wonky throw-away line, and I got a standing ovation! There were people from 45 different countries there and several came up to me and said “you just described my country”. And every person who said that had a violent religious extremist movement in their country.
Q: How do U.S. policymakers react when you argue that corruption helps foster violent religious “extremism”?
A: They say social justice or economic concerns may motivate the rank-and-file recruits but the leadership is ideological ... But religious ideology is deeply intertwined with social justice issues. These Westerners look at the phenomenon of Islamist extremism in almost Manichean terms and see these people as basically evil ... they try to disassociate social justice from religion, as if religion was in one bucket and social justice or economic concerns in another.
Q: You’ve just been in Nigeria. Does your analysis apply there?
A: On Boko Haram, I’m getting real resistance from Western policymakers on the anti-corruption roots of that movement. They say Boko Haram doesn’t recruit, it conscripts. It’s essentially the Lord’s Resistance Army. That’s interesting - the LRA has a religious word in its name. So what’s going on there?
Q: Corruption is usually seen as a barrier to development or business, not something the military should worry about.
A: This whole issue is placed in the development category, or the moral category. For our governments, if something is just a moral issue, it’s not something you assign resources to. But it’s a security issue too.
Q: Hard-headed security types don’t normally speak about moral issues.
A: One cannot speak in moral terms in a policy setting. You could in the 1960s and 1970s, but not now. To some extent, you can more on the conservative side in the U.S. more than on the left. I want to ... reclaim the connection between moral behavior and political action. They ought to be linked, not unlinked. Our own experiment in democracy was explicitly an experiment in moral governance.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Louise Ireland