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A lesson from Afghanistan for US policy in Latin America

Thank you Latin American Risk Report for this article

Today’s newsletter begins by discussing Afghanistan, but I think nearly every reader will see the immediate parallels to Latin America. I don’t want to understate the many large differences between the situation in South Asia and the situation in the Western Hemisphere, but there are still lessons to be learned from the situation in Afghanistan about the limits of US influence and the role of corruption in holding back good governance.

Corrupt oligarchs work to enrich and protect themselves, not their countries. They create the illusion of state building, one that quickly falls apart under any pressure that forces those oligarchs to choose between their own security and that of their country.

The list of excuses for why the US and its coalition partners tolerated and at times played into the corruption that occurred at the national and local levels in Afghanistan looks worse today than ever. As President Ghani fled the capital, local mayors surrendered their cities and the Afghan security forces fell apart, there are serious questions as to what the US received for over 20 years of effort, tens of thousands of troops deployed including thousands wounded and killed, and billions of dollars in aid. 

The US partners on the ground in Afghanistan included politicians, businessmen and warlords who took large cuts of every dollar that passed through. This wasn’t a secret. Numerous articlesreports and even books written over the past decades detailed the money, time, and effort lost due to corruption in Afghanistan.

The excuses made followed a pattern that entrenched the worst actors. Analysts suggested that corruption was necessary for Afghanistan to function and infrastructure projects couldn’t occur without buying local political support. They suggested that systems of kickbacks had always been part of the governance system and couldn’t be easily removed. They pointed to the fact that the immediate alternative - usually the Taliban though occasionally other criminal or insurgent groups - were corrupt, brutal and worse from the perspective of US foreign interests. 

There were times the US and others in the international community even made half-hearted efforts to crack down on corruption and defeat the money laundering networks that facilitated it. But when part of the coalition cracks down on corruption while another part continues to pay corrupt warlords for intelligence and support, progress doesn’t happen.

This isn’t and shouldn’t be a reflection on the Afghan population. They hate corruption too and have long been frustrated by the system’s inability to meet their needs.

This is also not to suggest that every dollar of aid was wasted. In particular, efforts to build hospitals, schools and communications infrastructure provided large benefits to the population and helped decrease poverty and increase literacy and life expectancy. Money spent on the police and military appears wasted, but money spent directly on civilian infrastructure, especially when done directly and not via a series of corrupt intermediaries, delivered positive results.

Is JOH Honduras’s Ghani?

The same way Afghanistan’s security forces fell apart and the president fled the capital, we should be asking whether the tolerance for corrupt oligarchs in Latin America and the Caribbean simply allows them to profit off a mirage of governance that could tumble if given the right push.

To consider parallels, I could point to a lot of different governments and situations. The situation in Haiti, in particular, looks awful this week given the political turmoil, earthquake and tropical storm. While two of those events are totally outside the control of anyone, natural disasters do far more damage when they hit countries with corrupt leaders who have failed to build proper infrastructure. The situation in Venezuela, while absolutely not supported by the US, also shows the damage corruption can do to governance and state capacity, something that cannot be ignored in any ongoing negotiation process if it hopes to lead to a better country.

However, perhaps the most relevant parallel from the past decade is Honduras. How does the US end up cooperating with a violent and corrupt drug trafficker like Juan Orlando Hernandez as it did under both the Obama and Trump administrations? Well, corruption is so ingrained in the system that it is difficult to do any infrastructure or security projects without working around someone close to corruption networks. Domestically, the immediate political alternatives to JOH are similarly corrupt and often openly opposed to US interests around the region. It’s easier to work with JOH than antagonize him in a region where the US already has too few allies. The US has to balance its desire to promote democratic leaders with other policy priorities including security, counter-narcotics and migration issues. 

That sort of short term logic in the paragraph above is rarely stated directly, but does lead to situations where the US spends years working with someone who we know isn’t working for the best interests of his country or the region. It pushes the problem to future years and future administrations. It creates the potential that short term security improvements, something that has been seen under the current Honduran administration, are actually a mirage held together by corrupt deals that can fall apart quickly when placed under pressure. 

In yesterday’s statement about Afghanistan, President Biden said, “I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another President of the United States.” The US president has similar choices to make on Latin America and the partners the US chooses to work with.

Thanks for reading