For Years, Sarah Chayes Told U.S. Leaders in Afghanistan Truths They Did Not Want to Hear About Corruption. Now She Looks at What Is Corroding Democracy at Home.Sarah Chayes traces how corrupt networks are organized—including right here at home. see more
On Corruption in America
And What Is at Stake
By Sarah Chayes
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Back in 2015, when Sarah Chayes published Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, she gave an interview in which she warned: “As far as Afghanistan is concerned, I think the window of opportunity to exert real leverage on governance and corruption is closed ... We had more than a decade, and we squandered a remarkable moment in history.” In August 2021, as the United States executed a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned to power, Chayes wrote a blog post titled “The Ides of August.” It bears quoting at length:
Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.
And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.
Is that American democracy?
There is no comforting answer to that.
Chayes’ knowledge of Afghanistan is well earned. As an NPR reporter, she covered the fall of the Taliban, making her way to Kandahar in December 2001. She left journalism for a spell to try to help shape a better future for Afghanistan, first running an NGO founded by President Hamid Karzai’s brother; then she launched a manufacturing cooperative that produces skin-care products from locally sourced ingredients in Kandahar. In 2009 she became a special advisor to the International Security Assistance Force, and in 2010 to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offering counsel on strategic policy on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arab Spring. But all too often, as she recounts in Thieves of State, her warnings about the corrosive toll of corruption were words U.S. leaders did not want to hear.
Grounded in history, this big story traces how corrupt networks are organized — including right here at home.
The most disheartening aspect was U.S. complicity in allowing corruption to fester in Afghanistan. So perhaps it was all too logical for her to take as her next project On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake. Grounded in history, this big story traces how corrupt networks are organized — including right here at home. From the grand excesses of the Gilded Age, the 1929 stock market crash, and corrupt machine politics, she follows the thread through a period of expanding equality that lasted decades but came to an end circa 1980. She takes to task the policies and personal enrichment of Democratic and Republican politicians alike, which have led us to a new kleptocratic age in which beneficiaries of the system use money and politics to bend rules and cover over their misdeeds: from corporate malfeasance to the sexual abuses of Jeffrey Epstein.
For an epilogue she offers ideas for “Breaking the Pattern,” including bringing the legal definition of corruption more in line with the common understanding of that crime. But one particularly poignant moment comes early on in the book, as Chayes is researching ancient history in the Mediterranean. Discussing gatherings for meals to show a sense of community, she recalls experiences in rural Morocco, where she served with the Peace Corps 1984–85: “I could suddenly see the merry eyes of my favorite neighbor as she leaned forward to break the tender meat into morsels and place an equal portion in front of each person she was hosting,” she writes. “That gesture, launching our meal, bound our fellowship.” A deeper commitment to community is something we desperately need.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
He served as a U.S. consul in Iran, and in Isfahan witnessed a revolution unfold. see more
With the Peace Corps, he and his wife helped set up the first high school for girls in the town of Farah. As a diplomat in Iran, he helped evacuate hundreds of U.S. citizens.
Photo courtesy the family of David McGaffey
By NPCA Staff
Born on a farm in Michigan, David McGaffey was 15 years old when he enrolled at the University of Detroit. He studied theater, folklore, psychology, and math, and met his future wife, Elizabeth. They wed and applied to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in Chile.
“The Peace Corps looked at my application and said here is somebody who likes mountains,” he recounted, “and called me up and said, ‘How would you like to go to Afghanistan?’”
The couple served 1964–66 in Baluchistan, setting up a science lab and the first high school for girls in the town of Farah.
He joined the foreign service and went to Manila. He returned to Afghanistan as an economic officer and saw firsthand the battle for influence between the U.S. and USSR. He served as a U.S. consul in Iran, and in Isfahan witnessed a revolution unfold. He organized evacuations of thousands of Americans.
He was nearly killed himself while trying to defuse the aftermath of a knife-turned-shooting argument over a shady business deal between a U.S. employee of Bell Helicopter and an Iranian taxi driver. The hotel where they were ensconced was surrounded by a mob of thousands ready to burn the place down, and police refused to intervene. McGaffey enlisted help from mullahs and got them and the American into a car to escape. “But I didn’t get in and was seized by the mob, shot, stabbed, hanged, and had both of my kneecaps broken.”
McGaffey received an award for heroism.
Operation Assured Response, 1996: David McGaffey, left, was working with the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Here he talks with U.S. Air Force Major Bryan Holt and a reporter while awaiting the arrival of evacuees from Monrovia, Liberia. Photo courtesy Department of State
McGaffey served some months in Tehran with the embassy before departing in fall 1979; 40 days later the embassy was stormed. He served as deputy chief of mission in Guyana and as U.S. representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
He wrote four volumes on diplomacy and a children’s book. He finished a master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a doctorate in international relations at Johns Hopkins. He taught at universities in the U.S., Portugal, and Sierra Leone. He died in April at age 79.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
I was a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, where cultural illiteracy led to U.S. failure. see more
I was a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, where cultural illiteracy led to U.S. failure.
Illustration by Miguel Davilla
By Baktash Ahadi
Like many Afghan Americans, I spent much time beginning in August trying to secure safe passage from Afghanistan for family, friends, and colleagues, with tragically limited success. I also know that many Americans have been asking: Why is this crazy scramble necessary? How could Afghanistan have collapsed so quickly?
As a former combat interpreter who served alongside U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, I can tell you part of the answer — one that’s been missing from the conversation: culture.
When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim. The coalition, after all, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It built highways. It emancipated Afghan women. It gave millions of people the right to vote for the first time ever.
Americans went straight to building roads and schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds.
All true. But the Americans went straight to building roads and schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.
First, almost all representatives of Western governments — military and civilian — were required to stay “inside the wire,” meaning they were confined at all times to Kabul’s fortified Green Zone and well-guarded military bases across the country.
Each of my own trips to visit family in Kabul was a breach for which I could have been disciplined. But I’m glad I broke the rules. If my colleagues had been allowed to enjoy the same experience — the scent of kebab in Shahr-e Naw, the hustle and bustle of Qala-e Fathullah — they might have developed a much better feel for the country, its people, and its culture.
As it was, however, virtually the only contact most Afghans had with the West came via heavily armed and armored combat troops. Americans thus mistook the Afghan countryside for a mere theater of war, rather than as a place where people actually lived. U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.
Sometimes, yes, we built good things — clinics, schools, wells. But when the building was done, we would simply leave. The Taliban would not only destroy those facilities, but also look upon the local community with greater suspicion for having received “gifts” from America.
The Marines I worked with were shocked, for example, to hear me exchanging favorite Koran verses with my fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety.
Second, the front-line troops were given zero training in cultural literacy. The Marines I worked with were shocked, for example, to hear me exchanging favorite Koran verses with my fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety. When talking to Afghan villagers, the Marines would not remove their sunglasses — a clear indication of untrustworthiness in a country that values eye contact. In some cases, they would approach and directly address village women, violating one of rural Afghanistan’s strictest cultural norms.
Faux pas such as these sound almost comically basic, and they are. But multiplied over millions of interactions throughout the United States’ two decades of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan, they cost us dearly in terms of local support.
From the point of view of many Afghans, Americans might as well have been extraterrestrials, descending out of the black sky every few weeks, looking and acting alien, and always bringing disruption, if not outright ruin. We failed to understand what made sense for Afghans time and time again. No wonder the Taliban maintained such sway over the past 20 years.
BEFORE LONG, U.S. TROOPS WILL BE BACK IN AFGHANISTAN, and for the same reason we invaded in 2001: Already, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorists are regrouping, as recent attacks make clear. And next time, it will be even harder for the West to garner support, given our betrayal of our Afghan allies.
This isn’t just about Afghanistan. When it comes to cultural illiteracy, America is a recidivist. We failed to understand Iraqi culture, too, so that now, many Iraqis see Iran as the lesser of two evils. Before that, we failed to understand Vietnam. And so on. Wherever our relentless military adventurism takes us next, we must do better.
This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Baktash Ahadi served U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces as a combat interpreter 2010–12 and is a former chair of the State Department’s Afghan Familiarization course. His father was taught by Peace Corps Volunteers in Afghanistan. Baktash Ahadi himself served as a Volunteer in Mozambique 2005–07.
Taking the Peace Corps for granted is a luxury we can no longer afford. see more
The United States needs to engage with the world — but not with top-down military-first policies.
By Reed Hastings and Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Melinda Beck
Americans spent the past two decades trying to rebuild Afghanistan from the top down. Our military led the way, with huge sacrifice, and the American people spent more than $2 trillion on this effort. While hopes were raised, particularly for women, progress was fleeting. Our mission was not achieved.
One could be forgiven, then, for believing that American engagement overseas is a pointless task. And one could even be forgiven for thinking that Americans should choose to stop engaging the world because of what we’ve just gone through, and that instead, we should retreat, self-isolate, and give up.
Yet that would be a grievous mistake. Not only because it would undermine America’s security and prosperity, but because it simply isn’t true.
We’re writing this piece because we, as former Peace Corps Volunteers, have seen the other side of official American engagement with the rest of the world.
We’re writing this piece because we, as former Peace Corps Volunteers, have seen the other side of official American engagement with the rest of the world. We’ve experienced what it means to be welcomed by foreign counterparts and to build partnerships with them on behalf of the United States. We know that this is possible, because for six decades, it has been done.
Yet right now, because of the COVID pandemic, there are no Volunteers serving in the field. More than 240,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps since 1961, with 7,000 Volunteers serving in 61 countries up until March 2020. Now there are none. And with Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, it’s more urgent than ever for us to send American Volunteers back out to the field, better than before.
Not only is there a humanitarian interest in returning Peace Corps Volunteers to the field, but there’s a strategic imperative in doing so. Americans cannot afford to stay at home. Our global competitors, like China, are salivating at the thought of an America in retreat. Nothing would better rebut that image than civilian volunteers being sent abroad to build peace, just as they were by President Kennedy in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.
Fortunately, even though the Peace Corps hasn’t been in the field, the Peace Corps community has been preparing for this moment, organizing not only to return to the field, but to do so differently. There have been major challenges in the agency’s work for years, and this past year and a half created an opportunity for the Peace Corps community to assess what was and wasn’t working, both for Americans and our partners overseas. The result was a set of recommendations made by the grassroots of our community to make the Peace Corps better.
For example, the Peace Corps community wants the agency to rectify systemic racism, to strengthen recruitment of and support for Volunteers from communities of color, and to root out gender-based discrimination in the Peace Corps as an institution. It also wants an agency that seeks innovative solutions to shared global problems, one that’s responsive to shifting expectations in the developing world. It wants the agency both to listen and to learn from our global partners so that Volunteers can provide them with the best that America has to offer.
There’s a domestic dividend from Peace Corps Volunteers that has yet to be cashed.
Alongside these and other reforms, the community wants the agency to create programs that train American talent to ultimately succeed in the global marketplace. And it wants the agency to mobilize the vast national network of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to more effectively implement the agency’s Third Goal of “strengthening American understanding about the world and its peoples.” There’s a domestic dividend from Peace Corps Volunteers that has yet to be cashed.
Listening to this collective wisdom from Americans who have served in the field overseas will be the antidote to the failed top-down military-first policies of the past two decades.
Fortunately, both Congress and the Biden administration have been receptive to these views. Legislation is moving in both chambers of Congress to reauthorize and renew the Peace Corps, providing it with the vision, reforms, and funding it needs to become the best arm of American global engagement that it can be.
Crucially, the legislation calls for $600 million in funding for the agency by 2025, up from the current $410 million. As Americans, we’re embarrassed by the paltry funding for the Peace Corps, especially considering how we spent roughly $300 million per day over the past two decades of war. Certainly, America can afford to increase what we invest in the Peace Corps in one full year from one and one-third of a day’s spending in Afghanistan to two.
For six decades now, the Peace Corps has been welcomed across the globe while advancing America’s self-interest. For far too long, our country has taken this tool of American power for granted. But for those of us who believe in America’s capacity to do good while advancing both our interests and values, taking the Peace Corps for granted is a luxury we can no longer afford.
We — the American people, coming in peace — are what the rest of the world wants from us. What it doesn’t want are more Afghanistans.
This essay originally appeared in The Hill in September 2021 and appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Reed Hastings is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Netflix. He served in the Peace Corps in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) 1983–85.
Glenn Blumhorst is the President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala 1988–91. Write him at email@example.com.
Quote: One of their daughters asked, “Why did you send me to school if I must cover myself and can never go to work?”A painful question from a girl in a country now ruled by the Taliban see more
John W. Bing served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan. From a girl in Afghanistan, he shares a painful question she and her family now face.
Photo: One of the women who form Bamiyan Weavers in Afghanistan. Courtesy Bamiyan Weavers
One of their daughters asked, “Why did you send me to school if I must cover myself and can never go to work?”
It’s a question Bing poses in an essay for the Santa Fe New Mexican. After the recent fall of Kabul, he writes about a project with women weavers in Afghanistan that is supported by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Bing served as a Volunteer in Afghanistan 1964–67.
About seven years ago, a group of former Peace Corps volunteers and Afghan Americans began a private project to support women weavers (many of whom were living in caves) in the central part of Afghanistan. We provided looms and financial support so the weavers could produce an indigenous wool product called barak. The project was reaching a point where it would have become self-sustaining when the Taliban began disrupting commerce in that part of the country.
Within the past weeks, the project leader and her family have fled to Kabul, hoping to reach a third country for asylum. Trapped now in a city overtaken by the Taliban, they have gone in search of burqas for their daughters. But the burqas, now required wearing by women of all ages, are sold out.
One of their daughters asked: “Why did you send me to school if I must cover myself and can never go to work?” This is the legacy now for the young women of Afghanistan. It will be a generation or two before they can again take their rightful place in their own society.
The great benefit of mistakes, even large-scale mistakes, is that we can learn from them. Let us hope that we do.
September 23–25, we gather to honor six decades of service & impact. Right now crises need our help. see more
This September, we gather to honor six decades of Peace Corps service in communities around the world. Right now, we need to honor Peace Corps ideals by helping in humanitarian crises.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Photo: A girl from Afghanistan at a UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp in 2002. Photo by Caleb Kenna
As this edition of WorldView magazine was wrapping up in August, we marked World Humanitarian Day — an occasion to advocate for the survival, well-being, and dignity of people affected by crises. A devastating earthquake hit Haiti; thousands were killed and injured. In Afghanistan, after the Taliban’s lightning offensive, the capital of Kabul fell. A chaotic U.S. exit and the collapse of the Afghan military created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions — and fears about retribution and the horrific treatment of women and girls.
Many of us in the Peace Corps community have deep personal ties to these countries. Volunteers have served in both, in years past. Returned Volunteers, including myself, have worked on development projects in Haiti and Afghanistan. Haitian Americans and Afghan Americans have served as Peace Corps Volunteers. Our first response in moments like this is to ask: What can we do now? How can we provide hands-on help? Where should we raise our voices?
Helping in Haiti
The people of Haiti were already suffering from the pandemic, food insecurity, and political turmoil. We have been in contact with a number of organizations providing help on the ground, such as Partners in Health. At bit.ly/npca-help-refugees we are posting updates on any formal partnerships that come together for the Peace Corps community. A number of RPCVs who served in Haiti and elsewhere have been in touch with offers to help. And we would encourage others to contact us as we seek to strengthen the organizational capacity of our Friends of Haiti affiliate group at this critical time.
Supporting refugees in Afghanistan — and in the U.S.
The Peace Corps Community for Refugees, in partnership with Friends of Afghanistan — both affiliate groups of National Peace Corps Association — is coordinating efforts in the Peace Corps community to support refugees from Afghanistan who are being resettled in some 30 cities across the United States. PCC4Refugees is mobilizing RPCVs to assist local resettlement agencies and ensure the many individuals and their families who put their lives at risk by supporting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are received with welcome, safe transportation, access to housing, and other necessities.
A girl from Afghanistan at a UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp in 2002, not long after the Taliban were removed from power. Now that they have returned, what will happen to women and girls? Photo by Caleb Kenna
Don Drach serves as a board member with PCC4Refugees; he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia 1971–73. As Don points out, since 2002, Afghan families have risked their lives to assist the U.S. military, diplomats, and other government employees, by serving as translators, interpreters, and more. Yet, as he and others have noted, “As the U.S. armed forces rapidly withdrew from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan allies and their families are being targeted and suffering retaliatory attacks from the Taliban for their affiliation with the U.S.”
By most estimates, more than 70,000 lives are at stake. Only a fraction of those individuals were able to obtain permission to travel to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which provides a legal pathway to safety for individuals who worked with U.S. personnel. The U.S. needs to follow through on its commitment to all those who helped. But even coming to the U.S. on an SIV is not the end of the journey for those who make it. That is where the Peace Corps community can absolutely step in — with helping refugees resettle and adjust to life in the U.S.
“We stand ready to work with our partner refugee resettlement agencies to place these refugees in homes across America,” says Terry Dougherty, part of the leadership of Friends of Afghanistan. “Because that’s what we do as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.”
“We stand ready to work with our partner refugee resettlement agencies to place these refugees in homes across America,” says Terry Dougherty, part of the leadership of Friends of Afghanistan. “Because that’s what we do as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.” For Dougherty, this is a profoundly personal connection; he served as a Volunteer in Afghanistan 1972–75, teaching in a provincial school and at Kabul Higher Teacher’s College. And after 2004, he began hosting high school students from Afghanistan and working with refugees.
At bit.ly/npca-help-refugees you’ll find contact information for Local Liaison Coordinator Anneke Valk and updates on where help is needed most. Also find out more and get involved at pcc4refugees.org.
Work of a lifetime
From September 23 to 25 we host Peace Corps Connect 2021, our 60th anniversary virtual conference. “Mobilizing for a Lifetime of Service and Impact” is the theme. And it couldn’t be more fitting. This is a moment when we need to act on these values that sustain us. We’ll tackle some of the most pressing issues we face, from climate change, migration, and refugees to equity, diversity, and inclusion — and the safety and security of Volunteers as they return to the field.
As the tragedies of recent weeks have underscored, the mission of building peace and friendship, and people with a lifetime commitment to Peace Corps ideals — these are things the world desperately needs.
Glenn Blumhorst is the President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Right Now, We Need to Honor Peace Corps Ideals by Helping in Humanitarian Crises in Afghanistan and HaitiWe need to honor Peace Corps ideals by helping in humanitarian crises. see more
Here is what we’re doing to bolster efforts by the Peace Corps community.
By Glenn Blumhorst
It should strike us with no small significance that today, August 19, is World Humanitarian Day — a day to advocate for the survival, well-being, and dignity of people affected by crises. In just the past week, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti; thousands have been killed and injured. In Afghanistan, on Sunday the capital of Kabul fell to the Taliban. A chaotic U.S. exit and collapse of the Afghan military has created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions — and fears of retribution and horrific treatment of women and girls under a new regime.
Many of us in the Peace Corps community have deep personal ties to these countries. Volunteers served in both in years past. Many RPCVs, including myself, have worked on development projects in Haiti and Afghanistan. Our first response in moments like this is to ask: What can we do now? How can we provide hands-on help? And where should we raise our voices?
Helping in Haiti
The people of Haiti were already suffering from the pandemic, food insecurity, and political turmoil after the assassination of the president. We are in contact with a number of organizations providing help on the ground, such as Partners in Health, and will keep you updated on any formal partnerships that come together for the Peace Corps community. RPCVs who served in Haiti are encouraged to contact us as we seek to strengthen the organizational capacity of our Friends of Haiti affiliate group.
Helping Refugees from Afghanistan
The Peace Corps Community for Refugees (PCC4Refugees), in partnership with Friends of Afghanistan — both affiliate groups of National Peace Corps Association — is coordinating efforts in the Peace Corps community to support refugees from Afghanistan being resettled across the United States. PCC4Refugees is mobilizing RPCVs to assist local resettlement agencies and ensure our allies are received with welcome, safe transportation, access to housing, and other necessities. PCC4Refugees can connect you with opportunities in the 30 U.S. cities designated as resettlement locations. Contact Local Liaison Coordinator Anneke Valk. Read more here, and visit pcc4refugees.org to get involved.
Since 2002, Afghan families have risked their lives to assist the U.S. military, diplomats, and other government employees, serving as translators, interpreters, cultural liaisons, and more. However, as the U.S. armed forces rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan allies and their families are being targeted and suffering retaliatory attacks from the Taliban for their affiliation with the U.S.
In response to the continuing violence towards Afghan allies, the Biden Administration is expected to evacuate 2,500 individuals to the U.S. before September 11, 2021, through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program which provides a legal pathway to safety for individuals who worked with U.S. forces and personnel. These Afghan Allies/SIVs have begun arriving at Fort Lee, Virginia and will continue to be relocated to 30 different cities across the U.S. over the next six weeks.
The cities are:
Albany, Atlanta, Austin, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, D.C. Metro Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Durham, Elizabeth, Fort Worth, Houston, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Louisville, Modesto, Oakland, Omaha, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Raleigh, Rochester, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa.
Story updated August 19, 2021, at 7:00 PM.
Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.