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The U.S. ignored corruption within the Afghan government. Did that lead to its fall?

As the Taliban faces protests and dissent across Afghanistan, William Brangham explores the collapse of the country's government — built and supported by the U.S. and allies for 20 years. For a deeper perspective, Brangham speaks with Sarah Chayes, who covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR and served as advisor to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story, as the Taliban struggles to rule amid protests and dissent in Kabul and across the country.

    William Brangham explores the collapse of the country's government, which was built and supported by the U.S. and its allies for 20 years.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    For some deeper perspective on how we got here, I'm joined now by someone who's had years-long involvement in Afghanistan.

    Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR. She then started and ran several NGOs in the country. She served as adviser to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    She is the author of several books. The most recent is "On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake." And she joins us now from Paris.

    Sarah Chayes, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    You recently published an essay called "The Ides of August," and, in it, you laid out several factors that you argue helped get us where we are today. And the first element was corruption that you pointed to.

    Can you explain the mechanism? How is it that corruption leads to the fall of the Afghan government?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    In simple terms, why would a population take risks to fight the Taliban on behalf of a government that is treating them almost as badly as the Taliban do?

    So, Afghan government officials would shake people down at every interaction. The massive international funding that was arriving in the country was being siphoned off or captured by government officials and their cronies.

    And from Afghans' perspective, it almost looked like the United States was in favor of this system, because our officials were always seen partnering with these venal Afghan leaders. And no matter how much the population complained, they really couldn't get us to address the serious — the issues seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    What role did the U.S.' actions play in this? Did we hinder the corruption? Did we help the corruption? Did we try to stop the corruption?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    I have to say, on balance, we enormously helped the corruption, as I say, first of all, by allowing local strongmen to capture the revenue streams.

    So, for example, you would have one local strongman who is providing security at that — at a U.S. base, and then he would only allow his people in to our contracting conferences, for example. We never held any of the officials that we were partnering with to account.

    I would say that, toward 2009-2010, we began to catch on to this as a serious issue. And so a decision was made to do a test case, with plenty of evidence. It was brilliantly mounted, and it had to do with a haul of approximately $900 million in Kabul Bank, right?

    So we're talking a significant issue here. And the person targeted who was taking a bribe was in the palace, was close to President Karzai. Well, as soon as President Karzai threw a fit about the arrest from his henchman, warrants executed a U-turn, and the U.S. never took corruption seriously after that. That was in 2010.

    In 2011, when I was working with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there was an interagency policy process that would arrive at a determination, how was the United States going to address corruption? And, explicitly, it was decided that we were not going to focus on any of the high-level corruption, only — quote — "street-level" police corruption, which, of course, was the purview of the military.

    So, from my perspective, there was a real dereliction of duty on the part of civilian leaderships in the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    Another factor in the essay that you posted was the role that Pakistan played in all of this.

    Can you explain? For people who are not familiar with the dynamics between the two nations, what role did Pakistan play?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    The Taliban did not initially arise inside Afghanistan the way we have often heard, in 1994.

    The Taliban were, in fact, basically concocted across the border in Pakistan. At that time, Afghanistan was a pretty chaotic, violent place, because it was after the Soviets had withdrawn and there were a lot of different PTSD-suffering militia commanders who were shooting at each other.

    And Pakistan was very interested in the long-distance trade routes that crossed Afghanistan. And it was really hard to get convoys, get goods across the country. And so their idea for how to secure their own interests, which both were in trade and were in having some what is often called strategic depth with respect to India, right?

    Like, India is their big rival, and they wanted a little bit of room behind them and control over territory and population. So they came up with this idea of Taliban. And they actually market-tested it. And I know this from interviews with locals over a number of years.

    Golly, wouldn't you — how would you feel about some religious students coming to bring this violence to a stop? And, frankly, people said, anything, you know?

  • William Brangham:

    This was Pakistani military intelligence doing this?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    That's exactly right.

    And then, in 2003, I watched them begin reconstituting the Taliban. So, Pakistan was playing — or the Pakistani military intelligence agency was playing this remarkable double game with the United States, where they were playing at being our ally and helping us conduct operations, but they were also essentially arming, equipping, training, and directing the Taliban.

    And if you look today at the reactions from Pakistani officials, I mean, they are crowing about the current results, the current outcome.

  • William Brangham:

    Your essay also touches on the role that former Afghan President Hamid Karzai played in this eventual undoing that we have witnessed. Again, how so?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    Again, it's very counterintuitive, but it was Karzai who initially negotiated the entry of the Taliban into Kandahar back in 1994.

    He was basically operating on behalf to have the Pakistani military intelligence agency. Karzai got into a fight with his father about it. Others disagreed with him about it. But that was the role he played. And so, again, it stunned me when I learned this, that our choice to be the first president of Afghanistan was the very one who had ushered the Taliban into power in the first place.

    And, today, we see him again emerging as the head of some coordinating committee. And so it makes me ask myself, has he not been conducting this type of negotiations, just like he did back in 1994, with the leaders of the northern cities, who all surrendered almost in unison, and all the other kind of local power brokers that we saw surrender in such quick succession?

    That doesn't just happen by itself. That was prepared.

  • William Brangham:

    Sarah Chayes, always great to see you.

    Your latest book is "On Corruption in America."

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Sarah Chayes:

    Thanks for having me, William.

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