Afghanistan’s Corruption Was Made in America

How Self-Dealing Elites Failed in Both Countries

By Sarah Chayes

September 3, 2021

At an Afghan National Army checkpoint outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2021Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

In 2005, I visited a branch of Afghanistan’s national bank in Kandahar to make a deposit. I was launching a cooperative that would craft skin-care products for export, using oils extracted from local almonds and apricot kernels and fragrant botanicals gathered from the desert or the stony hills north of town. In order to register with the authorities and be able to operate legally, we had to make a deposit in the national bank.

The cooperative’s chief financial officer, an Afghan, had been trying to achieve this formality for the past nine months—without paying a bribe. I had agreed to accompany him this time, knowing that together we would fare better. (I’m withholding his name because until a few weeks ago, he was a minister in the Afghan government and his family is now a target for retaliation by the Taliban, as are all Afghans who refuse to transfer their allegiance from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the newly declared Islamic Emirate.)

“Come back tomorrow,” barked the clerk, with a toss of his head, just as clerks had been telling my colleague for the past nine months. The subtext was clear: “Come back tomorrow—with the …

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