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Should we congratulate the Taliban for reducing corruption?

I recently watched a documentary by a mainstream Middle-East-based news organization on Taliban rule in Afghanistan. It was given direct access to the so-called Taliban Palace and shadowed a Taliban spokesperson. In one scene, the spokesperson, referring to the Taliban flag flying in the courtyard, said, “This is the symbol of jihad against corruption and America.” Here’s the dilemma: the Taliban’s jihad against corruption appears to be working.

On the latest Transparency International CPI, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan ranked 150, up from 174 in 2021.

But fighting corruption isn’t all the Taliban has been doing.

Recently, the UN General Assembly delayed a vote on Afghanistan’s representation at the United Nations due to the Taliban’s abuses. Some policies it has enacted include banning all girls from school past the sixth grade, public flogging and execution, cutting off hands for alleged theft charges, and more. Human Rights Watch has detailed a litany of such abuses.

Afghanistan, a country with around 41 million people, is in deep trouble. Yet, the Taliban seems to be making progress when it comes to corruption. Should we feel conflicted by this?

There are no easy answers here.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s war-torn Ukraine has also suffered massive corruption scandals, and Zelensky himself ran on a campaign of anti-corruption reform before the war. But it’s always a good idea to remember that anti-corruption drives can be used as a way for leaders to conveniently consolidate power and garner support from the West. I’m not saying that’s happening in Ukraine, just that it is one of the available points of view. Not every anti-corruption drive is as pure as the driven snow.

In the forward to the DOJ and SEC FCPA Resource Guide, the U.S. government says, “Foreign bribery is a scourge that must be eradicated.” That’s strong, unambiguous language.

By this yardstick, is the Taliban improving the world and making Afghanistan a better place for its citizens and industries because it is reducing corruption? 

The abhorrence of corruption has led to an an absolutism when it comes to anti-corruption enforcement. Phrases like “zero-tolerance” are catchy and often repeated, but the value and efficacy of such absolute mandates are passionately debated.

As compliance professionals, should we accept an “anti-corruption at all costs” approach? I doubt anyone reading this would believe that decreasing corruption at the expense of educating girls over the age of thirteen would be a trade-off worth making.

So, where are the lines? Should we place anti-corruption above or below food security, personal safety, education, an independent judiciary, or freedom of speech?

Perhaps an argument could be made that food security is often lost as a result of corruption. That is likely true in many cases, but not all. According to the World Food Program, around 15 million Afghans are currently without food security, yet corruption is down. It is likely a matter of no comfort to the starving and repressed citizens of Afghanistan that their CPI rating has improved under Taliban rule.

Is corruption wrong? Of course it is. None of us would be doing what we are doing if we thought it was right. But there is a warning here for countries and companies alike. We should not delude ourselves that corruption is always the highest-order problem that needs fixing. If we were to convince ourselves of this, we could fall into serious traps, perhaps more detrimental than the original problem we were trying to fix.

As the world fights against corruption, if it loses sight of justice and mercy, or temporarily suspends them, is it possible that we will have given up much more than we have gained?

The Taliban is a brutal, authoritarian regime that has caused untold horror to millions of people. The current situation in Afghanistan is heart-wrenching. Should we still congratulate them for their suppression of corruption? I’d argue that we shouldn’t, not even a little bit.

But we should take it as a reminder that trying to be reductionist about societal problems opens the door to an incredible capacity for abuse. In short, we need to ask, “Do the ends justify the means?”

As C.S. Lewis said:

The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trial ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.

Corruption, as a problem, is a human one. We should not lose our humanity in our fight against it.

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