Corruption has hampered progress toward peace and redevelopment in Afghanistan and Iraq. When a checkpoint soldier is on the take, suicide bombers are let through. When a local government official pockets development money, public works are stalled. Every time the power of money trumps the rule of law it erodes trust in the fragile government institutions and leaves people open to the appeals of militants.
But as the Pentagon and State Department try to get their arms around the bribery and self-dealing ingrained in the fabric of Afghan and Iraqi society, the job has become harder. Two recent examples from Iraq suggest that Americans are guilty of the same conduct.
Blackwater Worldwide, the security company that received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to protect State Department personnel and visitors in Iraq, is accused of approving $1 million in bribes to Iraqi officials. The payments reportedly occurred after Blackwater security guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in September 2007. A Blackwater convoy had fired indiscriminately on civilians at a crowded intersection, and the shooting sparked a serious backlash.
Allegations are that top officials in the company, including its founder and president, knew about and approved bribes to ensure that Blackwater would not be refused an operating license, though that license was later denied. Bribing foreign officials is illegal under U.S. law.
Then there is the apparent self-dealing of Peter Galbraith, a former American ambassador and the son of legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He appears to have secured rights to a share of the oil wealth of Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq. The conflict of interest arises because he had been an adviser to the Kurdish government on the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, which partly addressed how the oil wealth of the region would be divided.
According to the New York Times, Galbraith helped the Kurds gain control over the region's internal affairs, including new oil discoveries, after Galbraith had already obtained rights to at least one of Kurdistan's oil fields. Galbraith's interest could be worth a hundred million dollars or more.
Galbraith claims no wrongdoing and argues he was a private citizen acting as an unpaid adviser. But those details don't matter to Iraqi officials in Baghdad, who see an American absconding with the country's oil wealth through manipulative self-dealing.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, told the BBC recently, "The endemic corruption within the Iraqi system — not only the security forces, but the system — is still probably the biggest problem facing Iraq." President Barack Obama has publicly called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to rid his country of corruption. Those vital messages are undermined by the unethical behavior of Americans. Even as Blackwater officials and Galbraith acted in their own self-interests, they are staining the nation's image among Iraqis and Afghans.