In the years since the Sept. 11th attacks, the United States has spent huge sums to help foreign military and police forces develop the capacity to fight terrorism, with decidedly mixed results. Some of the biggest challenges to the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism aid can be explained by one word: corruption.
The failures of U.S.-trained Afghan security forces are well known, but the role of corruption in fueling those failures is often not fully appreciated. In April 2014, Gen. John Allen (retired), the former commander of U.S. forces there, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that “for too long we have focused our attention solely on the Taliban as the existential threat to Afghanistan,” but “they are an annoyance compared to the scope and magnitude of corruption.”
In Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and Yemen, corruption was at the root of why U.S. supported military and security forces were unable to effectively respond to terrorist threats. Transparency International has rightly attributed the collapse of Iraqi Security Forces in the face of ISIS attacks in 2014 in part to the appointment of sectarian leaders who were more interested in “amassing personal fortunes through corrupt practices . . . than on maintaining an effective fighting force.”
Many of the corrupt activities that fueled past U.S. counterterrorism problems are present in other U.S. partners. A recent report by the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy has found that two-thirds of the recipients of U.S. counterterrorism aid pose serious corruption risks. The risks are linked to the prevalence of practices such as favoritism, bribery, theft of defense resources, drug trafficking, state capture, and government fragmentation.
These activities can undermine U.S. counterterrorism efforts by fueling terrorist group recruitment and financing, demoralizing front-line soldiers, and limiting the use and sustainability of U.S. provided equipment. For the last few years, the United States has supported Egyptian efforts to secure the Libyan-Egyptian border. However, there have been reports that low-ranking Egyptian soldiers are accepting bribes on the Libyan border to allow fighters “to smuggle money, people, and commodities across the border.”
In Chad, President Idriss Déby has systematically supported some military units and individuals and marginalized others to help maintain his power. This rampant favoritism has created factional divisions within the military and increased the risk that the neglected Chadian military units involved in U.S.-supported counterterrorism efforts in Chad or Mali will continue to protest or even mutiny because of a lack of needed equipment, salaries, or benefits. U.S. support to favored military units may also fuel these divisions within the military.
For several U.S. counterterrorism partners, widespread bribery and other forms of corruption could lead to serious deficits in skilled soldiers and needed equipment. It is reportedly common that individuals will pay bribes to serve in a particular unit or location or to avoid front-line duty in Azerbaijan. In Saudi Arabia, arms purchases have often been used more to line the pockets of certain princes or strengthen military factions than to obtain needed equipment for the country’s defense.
It also appears that terrorist groups are benefiting from popular grievances against government corruption in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso in their efforts to gain new recruits or support for their causes. In Bangladesh, terrorist groups are reportedly seeking to “exploit resentment among some Bangladesh soldiers” that feel marginalized by the ruling party.
In response to these serious risks, the United States is increasing some efforts to address corruption in U.S. security cooperation. This includes a relatively new congressionally-mandated directive for the Pentagon to elevate assessments, monitoring, and evaluation of U.S. security cooperation. In July 2018, the Defense Department also sent to Congress a new strategy to prevent corruption in stabilization operations. However, these initiatives are not yet addressing the full range of corruption risks.
In order to curb corruption risks in U.S. counterterrorism aid programs, the Pentagon and the State Department would benefit from strengthened assessments of corruption risks before providing assistance. These assessments should map the structure of corrupt networks in the countries, including main revenue streams, external enablers and facilitators, and connections with the military. They should also provide a deeper analysis of the severity and nature of the corruption risks, including possible connections with organized crime.
Another key tool in fighting corruption is to increase the use of restrictions and conditions on U.S. counterterrorism aid. As part of this effort, it would be important to identify triggers that could spark a possible revision or termination of certain types of counterterrorism aid. These triggers could include the diversion of U.S. weapons, cooperation with criminal organizations, increased factional divisions, or elevated repression of opposition parties, journalists, or marginalized groups.
The United States could also increase U.S. support for and training on anti-corruption efforts in certain countries. Even in U.S. partner countries where corruption is widespread, U.S. support for transparency and oversight measures can help build support for effectively reducing the serious risks of corruption. Safety, security, and the wise use of tax dollars all demand that the United States invest more into reducing corruption going forward.
Colby Goodman is the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy.
William D. Hartung runs the center’s Arms and Security Project.