Case Studies

Afghanistan: Corruption and the making of warlords

"The ultimate point of failure for our forces…wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption."

- US Ambassador Ryan Crockett, 2014


Widespread corruption has been widely blamed for the failure of OEF and ISAF missions in Afghanistan to secure peace and support the development of a legitimate, effective Afghan state. While countering corruption is not a chiefly military task, in this case the armed forces did play a role in creating opportunities for corruption, be that through injecting resources or strengthening long-term spoilers. In fragile and conflict environments with high vulnerability to corruption, where many peacekeeping and stabilisation operations take place, it is crucial for military and civilian actors to understand the significance of corrupt practices and their own role in limiting or furthering them.


The ultimate point of failure for our forces…wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.[10]

US Ambassador Ryan Crockett, 2014

It is widely acknowledged that rampant corruption rather than insurgency was the key reason why the OEF and ISAF missions failed to foster a stable, secure Afghanistan with a modicum of inclusive and effective governance.[11] From criminal patronage networks busy smuggling drugs, to military and police officers buying and selling commissions, corruption undermined every aspect of the functioning of the Afghan state and tarnished international forces’ reputation by association. Vertically integrated corruption systems assisted the functioning and recruitment of the insurgency, and facilitated the outflow of public resources away from Afghanistan and into international tax havens.

Risk Pathways

Anti-Corruption Measures

When OEF and ISAF forces were deployed, corruption was not part of their mandate or tasking. Neither the U.S. coalition mandate,[100] nor the NATO mandate (International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support),[101] nor the multiple UN mandates[102] specify mitigating corruption risks or countering corruption as a particular task for the mission. The international community first identified it as a challenge in 2006 and 2008, following donor conferences;[103] it took until 2012 for corruption to be included in NATO’s Operational Plan for ISAF, and for the military intervention to be tasked to ‘neutralize corruption and organized crime.’ That same year, a subordinate command in Brunssum included support for counter- and anti-corruption in its own planning.[104]

Lack of focus on corruption, underpinned by the perception that it was a secondary issue that could be tackled once security was established, meant that the armed forces were ill-prepared for recognising the risks and mobilising the expertise to analyse and mitigate them. Even when the threat that corruption posed was recognised, the impending withdrawal of international forces meant that anti- and counter-corruption efforts never had a chance to truly gather pace. Nonetheless, the ISAF example offers a number of potential approaches and institutional solutions which could benefit future missions. From anti-corruption (preventive) task forces to counter-corruption measures (support for investigative and judiciary capabilities), ISAF’s experience should inform planning and implementation of other mission mandates.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Rampant corruption – from seemingly petty offences to grand-scale corruption carried out by vertically integrated networks – affected all levels of the Afghan government. Corrupt practices not only wasted resources, but also directly funded the very insurgency the international forces were there to defeat. In the longer term, they undermined development, good governance, and security in Afghanistan.


All online sources were accessed between March 2016-December 2018.

[1] NATO, ‘ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan (2001-2014)’, 1 September 2015.


This paper uses data from interviews conducted in 2017 and 2018 expressly for the paper, as well as interviews conducted as part of the research into a previous publication released by TI-DS: Corruption: Lessons from the international mission in Afghanistan, February 2015, available at: