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Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster: Anti-corruption speech at American University of Afghanistan

Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander,Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency): Inaugural speaks at the American University of Afghanistan's Leadership Lecture Series, Nov. 19.

On November 19th, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander, Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency), gave the inaugural speech for American University of Afghanistan’s Leadership Lecture Series.  A capacity crowd of approximately 200 students and faculty was in attendance for event.  The Leadership Lecture Series is organized by the university’s Professional Development Institute with the intent of improving the quality of training for the civil, government, and business leaders of Afghanistan’s future.

The General’s speech focused on understanding the nature of corruption in Afghanistan, its causes and potential solutions.  A very lively question and answer session followed the lecture, a reflection of the students’ ongoing anti-corruption seminars and workshops.  The students are also organizing an essay contest on the topic, with winners to be announced on International Anti-Corruption Day in December.


I would like to thank Dr. Michael Smith, Dr. Sharif Fayez, and Mr. Reshad Popal very much for the opportunity to join you at AUAF this afternoon. I would also like to thank one of your senior students, Mr. Mahmood Shah Habibi, who extended an initial invitation for me to speak with you. One of the most encouraging and affirming elements of my work in Afghanistan has been the opportunity engage with many of the country’s young and aspiring leaders—all of whom have such great faith in Afghanistan’s future and are working tirelessly to achieve a positive vision for the state and its people. It is a privilege to be here, and I look forward to our discussion.


I think we can all agree that Afghanistan has seen remarkable progress over the last ten years, in terms of security, infrastructure development, individual rights, and educational opportunities—like those you enjoy here at this exceptional university. But Afghanistan, as you know, still faces many problems. One of these, which I will focus on today, is corruption. Corruption—in the form of the abuse of official positions of power for personal gain—is robbing Afghanistan of much-needed revenue, undermining rule of law, degrading the effectiveness of state institutions, and eroding popular confidence in the government.

For over a year now, our organization, Shafafiyat at ISAF, has worked with Afghan leaders to reduce the threat that corruption and organized crime present to our shared goals in Afghanistan. From the outset of our efforts, we have engaged continually with representatives from Afghan civil society, with students like you, and with officials from across the Afghan government, to develop a common understanding of the corruption problem—and to frame the problem from the perspective of those who have experienced it—as a basis for shared action and reform. We have been very fortunate to have inspiring partners in this effort who have helped us define, understand, and begin devising solutions to the problem. Afghans have been our teachers, helping us to understand how we can ensure that our development and security efforts are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Corruption is neither unique nor intrinsic to Afghan society; countries around the world have encountered this problem in one form or another and many have found the means to overcome it. In Afghanistan’s case, the scale of corruption prevailing across the country’s public and private sectors is the product, in large measure, of the damage that the last three decades of war, and especially the conflicts from 1980-2001, have inflicted upon Afghan society and the Afghan government’s institutions. Working with Afghan colleagues, we quickly came to the conclusion that corruption is a problem of organized crime, perpetrated by networks that protect their criminal enterprises by exploiting the divisions within Afghan society, and by generating discord between Afghans and the international community.

We have also recognized that corruption has been exacerbated by the vast sums of international resources that have entered Afghanistan over the last ten years, often without adequate oversight. These resources have, in some cases, empowered criminal networks whose activities perpetuate instability, violence, and exclusionary economic practices. This is one aspect of the corruption problem that His Excellency President Karzai often highlights, and he is correct. Having acknowledged this problem, we have since taken significant steps to address it—by paying closer attention to where our money is going and what effect it is having, and by determining whether those with whom we are doing business are working in the interest of the Afghan state and its population. On the direction of General Petraeus and General Allen, our objective has been to ensure that U.S. and international resources entering Afghanistan are reaching their intended destinations and serving their intended purposes—that is, supporting the needs of the Afghan people and helping to lay the foundation for a future of peace and justice. In this way, the international community is beginning to do its part to address the problems of corruption and organized crime.

Enduring solutions to these problems will, however, require leadership and action not only among Afghanistan’s international partners, but on the part of officials within the Afghan government. In years past, conversations between Afghan and international leaders on the issue of corruption were characterized by mutual accusations and distrust. Increasingly, however, the senior leaders with whom we meet acknowledge the grave threat that corruption presents to the security, stability, and economic health of the country. These leaders also recognize that the current scale of corruption blackens the name of Afghanistan and the international community. We have established forums in which to work constructively and in a sustained manner with Afghan officials from critical ministries on the issues of corruption and organized crime. Together, we propose and develop reforms that will lead to concrete, tangible results. We have also sought to strengthen and protect Afghan law enforcement and judicial institutions whose independence and freedom from interference are essential to upholding justice and stemming corruption. We have made progress on these issues, but many obstacles remain.


The roots of corruption, as you know, are deep. We have to be patient, persistent, and creative in our efforts to address the problem. You, Afghanistan’s emerging leaders, have an important role to play in this regard.  I was pleased to learn that AUAF is home to a robust and growing program in business administration. As you know, a thriving business—or “productive”—sector will be essential to Afghanistan’s future economic growth and stability. It will also be important for integrating the country economically into the surrounding region, and thus allowing Afghanistan to assume its place as the “heart of Asia.” But it has also been observed by economists and sociologists alike that business leaders often make good and active citizens, particularly within countries emerging from conflict. Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are not only a force for promoting stability and creating prosperity, but they are also likely to be active in communicating their expectations to their government, because they have a great deal invested in the success of the state and its policies. Whether that civic potential can be fulfilled, however, depends on emerging business leaders’ discipline in adhering to high standards of ethics and professionalism, of the sort I’m sure you have discussed in your MBA classes here. It will be your responsibility, in the years ahead, to put those ideas into practice.

Apart from an emerging cadre of civic-minded entrepreneurs, Afghanistan will in the coming years also need a pool of professional civil servants with skills and talents like those you have developed here at AUAF. Upon graduation, you will be inheriting an Afghanistan that, as I noted earlier, has experienced dramatic progress over the last decade. Protecting that progress, and propelling Afghanistan toward the promising future it deserves will depend, in large measure, on your answering the call to national service. I understand that a number of you in the audience may already work within government in some capacity. I commend you for your service, and I know that those assembled here will always consider first the interests of the Afghan state and the citizens you serve, even when others may seem more concerned with self-enrichment or the pursuit of narrow, exclusionary agendas.


The goal of reversing corruption in Afghanistan seems daunting—and in many ways, it is. But Afghanistan is not the only country to have struggled to rebuild after years of war, while contending with the overlapping challenges of corruption, organized crime, and insecurity. It was only in recent years, for example, that Colombia’s leaders, working in close coordination with the United States, were able to halt the violence perpetrated throughout the country by insurgents, narcotics-traffickers, and paramilitary groups, which had for decades paralyzed Colombia’s politics, corroded its judicial institutions, and left its population victimized.  Decisive, visionary leadership, as well as the sustained partnership of the United States and others in the international community, were essential to Colombia’s ability to make tremendous progress in overcoming what had long been perceived as an intractable and irreversible challenge.

There is also the example of South Korea, which assumed the task of national reconstruction and development in the wake of a debilitating conflict, even while contending with continued insecurity and the interference of an antagonistic neighbor. In the course of these efforts, the South Koreans enjoyed the firm support of the United States, which had committed to rebuilding the country’s economy, partnering with its civil society, and strengthening its vital institutions. Although South Korea continues to experience the problem of corruption in some sectors, it is difficult to dispute that the country has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last half-century. The case of South Korea holds lessons for both Afghanistan and the United States to draw upon in the years ahead.

As important as it will be for Afghanistan’s current and emerging leaders to examine the experience of other countries for guidance and encouragement in the fight against corruption, it will be equally important for Afghans to look inward, and draw upon the values of honor, integrity, and justice that have long been the pride of the Afghanistan’s people. With the commitment and hard work of young leaders like you, and with the continuing support of Afghanistan’s international partners, I am certain that this country, in time, can reverse the threats of corruption and organized crime, and move forward confidently toward a peaceful, just future for all its citizens.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.


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