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When will the security policy community wake up to the threat of corruption?

5th May 2016

Last week protesters stormed the Green Zone in Iraq.  In many ways, this was hardly news. Over the last decade, popular frustration with endemic government corruption has been sustained and febrile; corruption might reasonably be described as the most serious security threat the country faces.

Read “Corruption & Security Assistance: Recommendations for donor states”

A lot is written about sectarianism in Iraq, and clearly this amplifies the deep anger over the abuse of official power – the feeling that “they” are stealing from “us”. But popular frustration with corruption isn’t limited to the Shi’ite community. As the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr “wait[s] for the great popular uprising and the great revolution to stop the march of corrupted officials”, many disaffected Sunni have joined Daesh in disgust with failure of government to deliver basic services, or in some cases their involvement in extortion.  A trawl through Daesh propaganda materials reveals numerous calls to arms against corrupt officialdom.

And added to this is the corrosive effect that corruption has on the institutions that are tasked with keeping the peace. Nepotism and patronage place incompetent, but influential, people in military leadership positions; procurement corruption has left troops without the right equipment, despite billions invested in them by the US and its allies; and payment system fraud has created ghost armies that burden stretched state budgets with no benefit to stability. In 2014, Mosul fell to Daesh after a regiment of 5,000 Iraqi soldiers on paper proved to number just a fraction of this on the ground. Revenue from these ghost soldiers has been estimated to generate at least $380 million a year for corrupt officials in Iraq.

Abadi is not oblivious to the risks of failing to grip this issue– the abuse of power was the rallying cry behind Arab spring movements and all three post-constitutional governments have promised strong action on corruption.   But as Zaid Al-Ali so presciently laid out back in an August article in the Washington post, Abadi’s latest plan stood little chance of success. As Al- Ali put it, all three plans “promised to revitalize the anti-corruption agencies, broaden Iraq’s tax base and improve services. And, just like Abadi’s plan, they were totally silent on how these objectives would be achieved.”

Of course, the US and its allies have poured billions into Iraq’s reconstruction and want to see this government survive and stabilise the country. And the diplomatic community have undoubtedly urged strong action against corruption at all the appropriate critical junctures, just as they have in Afghanistan.  So my question is this: does the international community even know what it’s doing where tackling endemic corruption is concerned?   Iraq isn’t alone – in many cases the international community has ploughed billions of aid into fragile countries, including in the form of security assistance, and the result has at best been poorly coordinated institutions. In Yemen, more than 1 billion USD in military aid was provided since 2000. Yet today, the country’s government is in exile; 1000s of people have been killed and a Saudi-led coalition is carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis. Meanwhile the US cannot account for $500m worth of military aid.

When looking across at the immediate security threats facing Europe, those involved in security policy might usefully focus a little more effort on the threat posed by corruption. But many diplomatic and defence institutions have as yet failed to adapt to evolving security threats, and remain rigidly rooted in the 20th Century debates of strategic arms control.    There’s no doubt that work to keep a lid on the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains vital, but it’s also clear that the failure to improve governance in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and across North Africa are, and will, continue to create direct challenges for European countries, as disaffected populations lead to failed states, terrorism, and mass migration. And on those nukes that policymakers are worried about: security forces hollowed out by corruption are far less capable of keeping them secure.

The good news is that both the UK Prime Minister and the US Secretary of State have both made corruption a top tier foreign policy priority – Kerry’s speech at Davos is well worth reading if you haven’t already. The UK’s anti-corruption summit is David Cameron’s answer to the problem, and they’ve been doing some great work through their Building Integrity Programme at the UK Defence Academy, with whom we partner to deliver training and capacity building on anti-corruption around the world. But the real test for the UK and US is whether the institutions that are delivering British and American foreign and security policy really “get” how to support strong action to tackle corruption, particularly the diplomatic community who will need to look beyond building good relationships with those in power.

Adopting some strong principles on delivering security assistance would be a useful first step – we’ve recently published our views on what these might look like (link). One thing that security assistance providers will have to do differently is to think beyond the institutions that have ‘security’ in their title. Simply building the strength of security forces isn’t enough to achieve real security – creating more capable and effective predatory armies is hardly a desirable policy outcome. The international focus must also be on ensuring that military capability is used to protect and defend the public. Which is why we recommend bolstering the strength of oversight institutions, like parliamentary defence and security committees, and civil society, who can hold the security forces and government to account. And it also means dealing with problems at home, and adopting strong anti-money laundering measures to prevent corrupt elites from bringing corrupt assets into places like London. We’ll be watching closely for what the Summit will achieve on security and whether the diplomatic community really follows the cues of their political masters in making this a genuine foreign policy priority.

Photo: Flickr / Chatham House.