By Josie Stewart, Programme Director
As the sun set behind rugged mountains, casting a warm glow over the bustling streets of Kabul, whispers of fear filled the air. A generation of Afghans raised with dreams of a peaceful and prosperous homeland found themselves caught in the crosshairs of political upheaval. Also in these crosshairs, the Afghan national security and defence forces. Instead of protecting these dreams, they dissolved into thin air – a ghost army made up of ghost soldiers. They made way for the return of the Taliban, who cast a shadow not just over the city but over two decades of turmoil, military intervention, international investment, and hope. Hope that Afghanistan could become secure and stable – for its people, and for the world.
That was 2021 – only two years ago. The world’s attention has moved on but the consequences of what transpired continue for millions of Afghans.
How was this able to happen, after so much effort, by so many? There is a one-word answer. Corruption.
Failure to prioritise fighting corruption as highly as fighting the Taliban, and worse, willingness to turn a blind eye, thinking that ‘we can’t afford to do anything about corruption while we’re fighting the Taliban’, helped the Taliban win.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that line in the couple of years I spent working in Kabul, nor how much it infuriated and worried me every time I did.
Fast forward a little, and I’ve now been at the helm of Transparency International Defence & Security for a little over a year. I’m privileged to be leading a team which has already made major contributions to advancing understanding of the true nature of corruption as a security threat, the relationships between corruption and conflict, and the need to integrate anti-corruption into defence and security sectors, agendas, and approaches.
Many others have walked –are running – along this same path towards securing integrity and fostering peace. From the work of Transparency International national chapters across our global movement, through the efforts of NGO partners around the world, to the growing commitment of multilateral institutions and even, in some places, the official designation by states of corruption as a threat to their national security – the world is moving towards an understanding, at last, of corruption as a fundamental threat to the safety and security of us all.
Yet, global military spending reached $2240 billion in 2022, and conflict-related deaths around the world are at a 28-year high. These are high stakes.
And of course there is the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shifted attention away from what happened in Afghanistan while also exemplifying the threat that corrupt authoritarian regimes pose to international peace and security and demonstrating the impact that corruption can have on military effectiveness.
Faced with all this, it’s time to raise the bar. To push beyond agenda-setting, to come together with others to lock in progress, and to ensure real change in policy and in practice.
Our new strategy, Securing Integrity, Fostering Peace, identifies the opportunities, pathways and partnerships that will help us advance peace and stability by reducing corruption in defence and security. It sets out three global themes, for three years of action:
- Corruption as a security threat. We are going to champion this global agenda, joining forces with all those already on this path, and mobilising others to join the cause. Together, we are going to get this issue onto international and multilateral agendas. And as a part of this, we are going to make sure the role of corruption within defence and security sectors is not overlooked or ignored.
- Anti-corruption in defence, security, and arms trade decision-making. With our national chapter partners, we are going to target specific issues and risks in specific countries whose policies and practice affect security outcomes beyond their own borders. We will evidence these issues and risks, we will use our evidence to inform our advocacy, and we will influence change.
- Informed and active citizens driving integrity in defence and security. Corruption in defence and security isn’t a battle for a select few; it’s a cause for all who care about stability and justice. To bring corruption in defence and security out of the shadows, civil society at national level, media organisations, and communities need to be aware of the issues at stake. They need to know how they can engage, and be able to push for change. We will work with and support them to help make this happen.
We’re going to be bolder, more targeted, and more ambitious in what we do. And as we do, we want and need more allies, more partners, and more support. Will you join us in this pursuit of a more transparent, accountable, and secure future? Please get in touch with me or my team: email@example.com
We know that corruption can be gender-specific in both form and impact. We know that it can perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence and gender inequality, and we know that the risks of this are highest in conflict, defence and security realms.
Sexual forms of corruption – often labelled as ‘survival sex’ – are commonplace in conflict, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian crises, with security and humanitarian individuals and groups among the main perpetrators.
Women’s exclusion from peace processes also undermine efforts to promote anti-corruption.
In response, we are leading the development of new approaches to integrate a gender-perspective across our work and the work of others at the intersection of conflict, defence and security, and corruption.
Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are a growing presence globally. They act as ‘shadow armies’, operating without transparency and free from legal accountability for their actions in conflict zones around the world.
Since the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the industry has expanded from an estimated value of US$100 billion in 2003 to US$224 billion in 2020.
Such is the power PMSCs wield, there is an urgent need for United Nations members states to collectively commit to regulate, investigate and prosecute misconduct by these firms.
It is against this backdrop that Transparency International Defence and Security is bringing policymakers together at a hybrid event, open for registration now, to highlight this issue and catalyse change.
Many of the largest PMSCs were founded in the United States and Europe. But sophisticated PMSCs are increasingly being established in a variety of countries ranging from Australia to China, India to Israel, and Turkey to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Russian Wagner Group is operating in many African countries and the network’s grip on matters of national security is tightening.
PMSCs are not merely providing ‘bodies’ and direct combat services. They sell services such as intelligence, surveillance and cyber security. This expansion in services has elevated corruption and conflict risks in many countries with critically weak protection to guard against defence and security sector corruption.
In response to these trends, a United Nations Intergovernmental Working Group on PMSCs is debating an international framework to regulate their activities.
Currently the internationally supported but non-binding Montreux Document encourages countries to refrain from hiring PMSCs that have a record of engaging in bribery and corruption, among other crimes. While it is a step in the right direction, it lacks teeth.
Some countries, such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand are also exploring new regulations and laws at national level.
These are positive moves. However, until international and national legislation is formally agreed upon, the kind of law-breaking carried out by PMSCs such as land grabs facilitated through corruption and violence against civilians, documented in our latest research paper, will continue.
In Washington this month Transparency International Defence and Security will be convening a workshop to galvanise international support for anti-corruption standards for PMSCs. Chaired by Transparency International co-founder Peter Conze, the event is being held as part of the influential International Anti-Corruption Conference.
We will be making the case for the UN to establish:
- Clear complaint mechanisms and standards to protect whistle blowers
- A requirement of reporting on beneficial ownership of PMSCs and subcontracting by PMSCs
- Increased transparency of contracts and enhanced reporting on exports of PMSC services to enable external oversight and accountability, including procurement and transfers of weapons and equipment in line with arms control requirements
- Heightened oversight at the higher level of states institutions. For example, the State and Defense Department should establish accessible whistleblowing channels and regularly monitor their use, at a minimum
As the event is being held in Washington, we will also share a roadmap for progressing US legislation, highlighting the need for:
- The definition of defence services to be expanded to include combat activities and potentially intelligence services, so that US companies and individuals must obtain US government authorisation (or a licence) to export such services
- More detailed reporting to Congress on defence service exports, including listing the specific types of authorised defence service and associated dollar value for each country
- Enhanced policy guidance for the State Department to assess the risks of corruption before approving a contract or license for PMSC services abroad
It’s time for PMSCs to be brought out of the shadows. Join us.
In response to the review of the UK’s aid investment in Afghanistan published this week by the UK Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI), Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:
“This review adds to the now sky-high pile of evidence that corruption was central to the tragic downfall of the country. Corruption within the security services was particularly damaging, undermining the cohesion and operational capacity of the army and police. Arms and equipment were stolen, and sold to the Taliban.
“Following the downfall of Kabul last year, Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan’s former finance minister, said that most Afghan troops on the payroll had in fact been ‘ghost’ soldiers, made up by corrupt officials who exploited the system for money. The operational capability of soldiers who did not actually exist had proven to be, unsurprisingly, limited.
“ICAI’s new report highlights that the UK provided over £400 million in aid over just six years to fund the Afghan security services, including paying the salaries of the Afghan National Police who acted primarily as a paramilitary force engaged in counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban. We will never know how much of this £400 million was stolen, how much indirectly funded the Taliban, or how much it contributed to the overestimation of the Afghan security forces’ operational capability which led to such devastating consequences for the Afghan government, its NATO partners, and the Afghan people. But anyone who cares about global peace and security must learn the lessons from Afghanistan.”
+ 44 (0)20 3096 7695
Out of hours – Weekends; Weekdays (UK 17.30-21.30): +44 (0)79 6456 0340
Our latest research catalogues conflict and corruption around the word – harm caused by leaving the privatisation of national security to grow and operate without proper regulation.
Post-Afghanistan, exploitation of global conflicts is big business. Most private military and security firms are registered in the US, so we are calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. The time has also come for accreditation standards to be enforced rather than only encouraged, at both a national and international level.
Michael Ofori-Mensah, Head of Research at Transparency International Defence and Security, describes some of the dangers documented in our latest research paper.
Unaccountable private military and security companies continue to pursue partnerships that in recent years have led indirectly to the assassination of presidents and journalists, land grabs in conflict zones, and even suspected war crimes.
From Haiti to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria, US-based organisations – the firms that dominate the market – have found themselves associated with a string of tragedies, all while their sector has grown ever-more lucrative.
Transparency International Defence and Security’s latest research – ‘Hidden Costs: US private military and security companies and the risks of corruption and conflict – catalogues the harm playing out internationally as countries increasingly seek to outsource national security concerns to soldiers of fortune.
Hidden costs from the trade in national security
While the US and other governments have left the national security industry to grow and operate without proper regulation, the risks of conflict being exploited for monetary gain are growing all the time.
Hidden Costs documents how the former CEO of one major US private military and security company was convicted – following a guilty plea – of bribing Nigerian officials for a US$6bn land grab in the long-plundered Niger Delta.
Our research also highlights that the Saudi operatives responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s savage murder received combat training from the US security company Tier One Group.
Arguably most damning are the accounts from Haiti, where the country’s president was killed last year by a squad of mercenaries thought to have been trained in the US and Colombia.
Many governments around the world argue that critical security capability gaps are being filled quickly and with relatively minimal costs through the growing practise of outsourcing.
Spurred on by the US government’s normalisation of the trade, US firms are growing both their services and the number of fragile countries in which they operate.
The private military and security sector has swelled to be worth US$224 billion. That figure is expected to double by 2030.
The value of US services exported is predicted to grow to more than $80 billion in the near future, but the industry and the challenge faced is global.
The risks of corruption and conflict in the pursuit of profits are plain.
These risks are as old as time. But their modern manifestations in warzones must not be left to spill over. The 20-year war in Afghanistan cultivated dynamics that threaten further damage, more than a decade after governments first expressed their concerns.
International rules and robust regulation are urgently needed. We need measures that ensure mandatory reporting of private military and security company activities. The Montreux Document lacks teeth, operating as it does as guidance that is not legally binding. Code of conduct standards must also become mandatory for accreditation, rather than purely voluntary.
Most private military and security firms are registered in the US. So Transparency International Defence and Security is also calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. There is an opportunity arriving in September, when draft legislation faces review.
Policymakers have long been aware of the corruption risks and the related threats to peace and prosperity posed by this sector. The time for action is well overdue. No more Hidden Costs.
In 2008 and 2009, our team developed a five-day course tailored education course that teaches officers and defence officials how corruption can be tackled and prevented, in collaboration with NATO’s ‘Building Integrity’ (BI) initiative. The course builds up knowledge on the concept of corruption, how it manifests itself in the defence and security sector, how it can be prevented and how to build institutional integrity. It also builds confidence among participants that such an objective is worthwhile and achievable. The feedback shows that, overall, the course is highly relevant to Afghan participants and it demonstrated a tangible impact by allowing many alumni to think in new ways about corruption and improve their own work.