From Syria to Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, the most corrupt states are also torn apart by political conflicts, showing the strong connection between the two.
Experts define corruption as the “misuse of public power for private or political gain”, and during conflict, the potential for “misuse of public power” no doubt increases.
In a war, public accountability for political actors also becomes an increasingly difficult task, which creates the perfect conditions for corruption, giving politicians free rein to use their power to promote their own interests.
From Syria to Afghanistan, corrupt governments in Damascus or Kabul have little public support or political legitimacy, but their rule has been enabled by foreign powers like the US in the case of Afghanistan and Russia and Iran in the case of Syria.
“There is a very strong connection between corruption and war. Half of the countries in the bottom quartile of Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index are in conflict. This is significantly higher than any other quartile of countries,” says Joseph Siegle, Director of Research in Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.
“Of course, not all countries with high corruption are in the midst of civil wars. However, the cases you mention suggest that a connection can exist,” Suzan Rose-Ackerman, an emeritus professor of law and political science at Yale University, tells TRT World.
“The problem is to determine the direction of causation. Do civil wars lead to corruption because they disrupt ordinary market transactions and lead some officials to develop sidelines in the black market?” asks Rose-Ackerman, who has extensively written on corruption.
This kind of scenario is clear in the Syrian situation where the civil war has led to even more corruption as the Bashar al Assad regime has enabled members of the ruling class to benefit from the political chaos, making people like Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al Assad, rich. Mahklouf has reportedly developed strong connections in the black markets.
“Makhlouf is more than just a mere name, he is a shadow ruler of the country’s black markets, a key financial pillar of its flailing economy,” wrote Danny Makki, a Syrian political analyst, last year. Makhlouf now faces a corruption investigation in Syria.
Interestingly, most of Makhlouf’s assets are located in the UAE, which was an avowed enemy of the Assad regime at the beginning of the civil war. But, then, Abu Dhabi made peace with Damascus in the middle of the war.
“There are cases where some government officials and private sector actors thrive under a war economy and their control of key supply chains that are needed in times of conflict (for example, weapons, finance, and manufacturing materials),” Siegel tells TRT World.
“They, therefore, may see incentives in the perpetuation of a conflict. Individuals and networks involved in the illicit exploitation of natural resources during times of conflict also benefit from ongoing instability and the absence of oversight,” Siegel says.
How conflicts enable corruption
Siegel thinks that conflicts create “enabling conditions for corruption”. Because countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are highly polarised for various reasons, those governments in power find “a justification for the redirecting state resources by government authorities at even greater levels,” according to Siegel.
“These governments are often starting from low levels of accountability and transparency, which are then further diminished in conflict conditions,” Siegel notes.
In Afghanistan, the US-backed Afghan government has made warlords rich across the country in exchange for their support for Kabul against groups like the Taliban. Like Russians in Syria, Americans in Afghanistan closed their eyes to those illicit arrangements, even allowing US-linked figures like Erik Prince to cooperate with Afghan warlords.
“When it comes to the US, the American military and war budget are so large that they have been compromised by corruption and military contractors,” says David Vine, professor of anthropology at the American University, who wrote books on the extensive nature of US military bases around the world.
The nature of the large US military budget affects not only the internal workings of the American economy but also foreign countries like Afghanistan, where US military contractors are provided, “because corruption can seep into the local economy as well,” Vine tells TRT World.
“If governments want to gain political and sometimes personal interests for their people and institutions, corruption spreads,” says Vamik Volkan, an emeritus professor of the University of Virginia, a leading expert on political psychology and on the roots of worldwide conflicts.
“If there were a war with another country, corruption would be permitted to gain political interests,” Volkan tells TRT World.
Rose-Ackerman echoes this notion.
“A truly kleptocratic government with strong central control will want to stay in power. One thing that such a government may do is to buy off powerful opponents with such benefits as public contracts or concessions,” Rose-Ackerman says.
“They will try to control the media to prevent investigative reporting. They may also co-opt organised criminals to suppress dissent through deals where the laws are not enforced in return for sharing the profits of illicit businesses,” she says.
While corrupt governments appear to justify corruption in the name of fighting insurgent groups like the Syrian opposition or the Taliban, their rule becomes more fragile and violent in time.
In Syria, despite all the brutality and foreign support, the Assad regime still only controls 60 percent of the country while the NATO-backed Afghan government was recently overthrown by a resurgent Taliban, who promised to end widespread corruption across the country.
Corruption increases instability
While the civil war helped facilitate a lot of corruption schemes in Syria, Afghanistan and other places, alternatively, corruption breeds political conflicts, potentially leading to insurgencies, according to Rose-Ackerman.
“Suppose that a country has very weak institutions and poorly trained and paid officials so that corruption is a pervasive response to this weakness. Then, disgruntled groups, upset with the pervasive corruption, may form guerilla groups to challenge the corrupt groups in power,” notes Rose-Ackerman.
This is something clear in both Afghanistan and Syria.
After a bloody fight against the Soviet invaders, many ordinary Afghans, who fought across the ranks of the US-backed mujahideen resistance movement, wanted to return to their normal lives. But when they came back to their villages, they were forced to deal with local governments run by corrupt leaders and warlords.
Eventually, most of them joined the Taliban. This phenomenon is well documented by well-respected researchers like Anand Gopal and Alex Strick van Linschoten in their books.
“Countries that have higher levels of systemic corruption are much more conflict prone. This contributes to perceptions of privilege, exploitation, and disparity. These grievances, especially when coupled with the belief that these inequities cannot be remedied through reforms, leave countries more vulnerable to conflict,” Siegel tells TRT World.
In Syria, a similar situation to Afghanistan played out. First, clashes in Syrian cities like Daraa, the ‘Cradle of the Revolution’, were triggered by local resentment against corrupt officials, according to Nick Gersh, a political analyst.
“These protests, rather than focusing on economic issues, as was the case in some other Arab Spring protests, quickly targeted the corrupt public officials in the city. The protesters lit fire to the local Baath Party headquarters, the most prominent symbol of governance in the city, as the Baath party, headed by the Assad family, is the controlling party in Syria,” Gersh wrote.
“Once the fire was lit, the protesters engaged with the police in the city, leading to direct combat between them and the corrupt officers who held so much influence in their lives. These violent outbursts against corrupt officials were the first spark of what would become a full-blown civil war,” Gersh added.
Giorgio Spagnol, a former Italian general and political analyst, also sees strong connections between corruption and conflict. Spagnol believes that high corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan helped a lot groups like the Taliban and Daesh recruit ordinary people into their ranks, empowering them.
“Corruption could thus create an appealing atmosphere for crimes and conflicts because of two main reasons: on the one hand, it sustains circumstances of impunity which only further encourage crimes and, on the other hand, the impunity on crime may encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands in attempts to effect jungle justice, which could further lead to conflicts and crime,” Spagnol wrote.
If states do not reduce corruption and improve governance, strengthening institutions by reforming them, then, there is no way governments in those countries like Syria and Iraq can survive in the long run, according to Spagnol. “Fixing corruption ... must start at the top,” he emphasised.
Another factor concerning connections between conflicts and corruption is related to autocratic tendencies. “The countries that appear in the bottom quartile of the Corruption Perceptions Index are disproportionately autocratic,” Siegel observes.
“It is this lack of accountability that facilitates corruption and grievance. By definition, autocracies are only serving a minority within a population. The inequities this perpetuates create escalating pressures within a society. These political systems are also less receptive to reform and, therefore, lack the self-corrective capacity of more open governments,” he adds.
Western high corruption
While regions like the Middle East and Central Asia have suffered from both conflicts and corruption for so long, Western democracies, primarily the US, are also not immune to conflict-related corruption.
Vine, the American professor, draws attention to the former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s emphasis on the “military-industrial complex”, which is “an undemocratic form of power that has exerted huge influence over the United States since WWII.”
Vine strongly believes that the military-industrial complex is designed to keep the US in constant wars across the world.
“Military spending and wars only feed power of the military-industrial complex, which has really negative effects on the entirety of the US, and fuel a kind of legal corruption, where military contractors make large campaign contributions and spend huge amounts of money, lobbying politicians to shape national policy and spending and keep the US fighting wars,” the professor says.
Conflicts are led by militaries, which are “undemocratic institutions”, so that alone creates conditions for corruption, according to Vine. “War profiteering and companies and individuals making money from war and increasing their power through wars are the long standing patterns around the world,” he adds.