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Why Is This Happening? Understanding corruption with Sarah Chayes: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Sarah Chayes, an anti-corruption activist and the author of “Corruption In America: And What Is At Stake.”

Recognized around the globe for her research on corruption, Sarah Chayes has seen her fair share of corruption at play. She also had frontline experience in Afghanistan during the events leading up to the country’s collapse. The anti-corruption activist witnessed incidents that ultimately contributed to the United States’ recent withdrawal. Chayes’ career has led her from reporting in Paris for NPR and covering the fall of the Taliban in 2001, to examining developing countries that are considered corrupt during a stint at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The prolific author has said that kleptocratic actions are an “existential threat facing our generation” and her book “On Corruption In America: And What Is At Stake” examines the myriad reasons why unscrupulous practices are prevalent across global networks, and why crisis results.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos. This conversation was recorded on July 27th, 2021, before the latest news in Kabul.

Sarah Chayes: It's the abuse of power for personal gain. But when it's really dangerous, it's not just one venal guy, you know, with his hand in the cookie jar. That's not the problem. The problem of the government officials who engage in corruption is, of course, yes, they steer public funds to themselves and their cronies. But I think even more importantly, they de-nature the function of government to serve in perpetuity their cronies and themselves.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me your host, Chris Hayes. I am 42 years old. So, I was born in 1979. I turned 22 in February of 2001, which means that when the September 11th attacks happened, I was 22 years old, just outta college, sort of trying to find my way. And I felt, you know, a profound sense of mourning, fear, angst, dislocation. I felt a pretty intense political objection to the US war in Afghanistan at the time. I think I was in a pretty slim minority (LAUGH) at that time.

And then, I, you know, life has gone, and I've become a reporter, a print reporter and, you know, started getting into television. I host a television show now and a podcast. And one of the constants in the entirety of my adult career in journalism has been the US war in Afghanistan.

It's the longest war in the history of the American republic. It's been going on for 20 years, and now is ending quickly, unceremoniously. You may have seen the reports about how the US basically in the middle of the night vacated Bagram Air Base which have been a major staging area for the US.

There are reports that the Taliban have taken more and more provinces and are threatening to retake control of the country. And there's been a lot of reporting about the aftermath of our departure, what it will mean for Afghanistan, for society there, for women particularly and women's education, should the Taliban retake the capital.

But I think there's sort of also a deeper question to ask about like: What was this? What was this US engagement in Afghanistan? What did it amount to? What are the lessons to learn from it? And so, I thought, someone I've been wanting to talk to for a while, a woman by the name of Sarah Chayes, who's fascinating.

She was a journalist. She went to Afghanistan originally to cover Afghanistan, ended up staying there founding a number of organizations, working in the NGO sector, particularly on corruption which has been obviously a sort of toxic and ubiquitous presence in Afghanistan. She wrote a book in 2020 called On Corruption in America: What's at Stake. Also, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, and back in 2006 wrote The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.

She's also served as special adviser to two commanders of international forces in Afghanistan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She spent five years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I think she's got an incredible perspective on the US and Afghanistan and the place where those two countries and cultures met each other. So, it's my great pleasure to welcome Sarah Chayes. Sarah, thanks for comin' on.

Sarah Chayes: Thank you, Chris. What a pleasure.

Chris Hayes: Can you tell me about when you first got to Afghanistan?

Sarah Chayes: Wow. Kaleidoscope. I'm reporting for National Public Radio. There were a couple of us, but I was the one down in the South. So, I'm driving up from Quetta, Pakistan in a yellow taxi, which was what color the taxis were in Pakistan, which meant my driver was panicked. Because it meant that his car was gonna stick out. And we drive up over, you know--

Chris Hayes: (LAUGH) That's not great--

Sarah Chayes: --the road is like talcum powder, right? (LAUGH) And, you know, we drive down the hill into Kandahar. You know, and there are these people in these pickup trucks with, you know, rocket launchers latched to the struts and driving all around. And some of them were kinda friends of mine. So, I start riding (LAUGH) around Kandahar in the pickup trucks and, you know, chasing down last pockets of Taliban or weapons caches or whatever.

And meanwhile, the chief or kinda head of this little militia group that, you know, is sort of about to transform into the police is telling me, "Why are we warlords running the place? We're terrible for Afghanistan. We shouldn't be in charge. This is supposed to be about, you know, a democratic government." It was pretty interesting.

Chris Hayes: This was someone who himself was essentially a warlord who had--

Sarah Chayes: Right. A little. A little warlord, but--

Chris Hayes: --but an armed militia, and a little feifdom.

Sarah Chayes: Yeah. Yeah. Or he was part of that class, if you will. And for him, this was all wrong. This was not how this was supposed to go. Afghanistan wasn't supposed to go back to the chaos that had existed before the Taliban. That's not what American involvement was supposed to bring.

Chris Hayes: How long were you there reporting?

Sarah Chayes: I was reporting until, like, January of 2002. And then, on my way out, I stopped off to have dinner with President Karzai's uncle who had been one of my kinda off-the-record sources mostly about cultural matters, you know, when I was reporting. And as I walked out the door, he said, "Wouldn't you come back and help us?"

You know, like, my mouth formed the word before my (LAUGH) brain had a chance to kinda react. And the word was, "Yes." So, that's how I found myself back there on a shoestring in, like, March of 2002. And I was there through, you know, with about a six-month break to finish writing Punishment of Virtue until, you know, basically the end of 2011.

The last year and a half about, I was working for Admiral Mike Mullen who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And so, I was kinda one foot in Washington and one foot in Afghanistan. And that was kinda interesting 'cause it was like: Which environment is more hostile, the Pentagon or downtown Kandahar? (LAUGH) You know, like, it was interesting.

Chris Hayes: Wait, why do you say that?

Sarah Chayes: I mean, the Pentagon was not a very easy place to work. It's very competitive. And what I had to say wasn't very well-received by, I would say, the people who were kind of my peers, meaning the colonels in particular. Mullen was very interested. And that also added to the discomfort because I had a direct channel to him. Like, I didn't have any hierarchy.

So, you know, you get into these bureaucratic games like catching up with the boss when he's on the way to the barber shop, which is inside the Pentagon, so that you can tell him what you think without that getting back to commanders in the field.

Chris Hayes: Right. What were the things you were saying that your peers weren't psyched to hear?

Sarah Chayes: I think in particular, there were two buckets, if you will. One was that corruption was the most important issue, and that Afghans know how to fight. All this stuff about air support and medivac and stuff like that is ridiculous because, you know, the Taliban don't have air support, and they seem to be doing pretty well.

So, the issue here isn't military tactics. It's not shoot-and-manuever. In fact, if anything we were teaching Afghans to be a conventional army, which is almost always at a disadvantage when it's faced with a very mobile, very dedicated insurgency, right? It's just, conventional armies that need trucks and trucks and trucks of fancy food and air conditioning don't do well.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sarah Chayes: So, that was one thing. And therefore, what would win the war is Afghans were proud of their government. But if Afghans felt like their government was treating them basically as badly as the Taliban were, which is what my neighbors were telling me, they would say, you know, "The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shake us down in the daytime."

You know, so how can you expect those people to stick their necks out, much less actually take the field, on behalf of a government that they're ashamed of and that, you know, is hurting them? So, that was the main point I was trying to make. And that all of the US military's relationships with military, and especially provincial, government officials were actually detrimental to what we were trying to do.

Chris Hayes: What you say there is so, you know, I remember covering a lot about Patreaus in Iraq. And, you know, this whole thing about counterinsurgency, and how we have to create stability, and this is much a political mission as a military one. And you've got all these stories of these 25-year-old officers who are going out, and with their translator, having tea with some, you know, village elders to negotiate some question about land use and water.

And the whole thing always struck me as just, like, utterly a preposterous project. Because it's like, okay, well, you've got this army that's trained to fight people, and now it's gonna, I don't know, do, like, poli-sci/sociology 101 all through the eyes of these, you know, (LAUGH) 25-year-old soldiers who have literally zero linguistic ability, no cultural context at all? And, you know, with the thing you were saying with the Pentagon is, corruption's the number one issue. It's like, well, the Pentagon doesn't know how to make a society not corrupt.

Sarah Chayes: That's right. I mean, that's part of the irony of how we interact, and the number of civilians compared to the number of military personnel. And frankly, I mean, I have to say that unfortunately the civilians weren't a lot better, you know, the few civilians that there are relative to the number of military, because they respond to the same internal incentive structure, which is: How good is your partnership with your local counterpart?

Well, the local counterparts were all part of the corrupt network. So, the more you saddle up to the local quote/unquote, "democratically-elected government officials," the worse you appear in Afghan eyes. And Afghans assume that we're in favor of corruption. It was really hard to blame them because that's what every one of our actions seemed to indicate.

And there's another problem, Chris, which is the picture you describe from Iraq is a village-level picture. And at best, you know, following that sort of model, you could make some headway on a village level. But these corruption networks are vertically integrated all the way up to the top.

So, if you think about, like, let's just start with the real basics, like shakedowns, you know, by police officers. You know, you're driving down a road, and they step into the middle of the street. And they are supposedly doing a traffic check, but you have to pay them.

So, a lot of people will talk about that as petty corruption. The fact is that that money goes up the line. That street-level cop takes some of the money. And the rest of it is going all the way up the line to the minister of interior. You know, and it's a lot of money. I mean, back in 2010, there were two different bribery surveys done. And they come up with between $2 and $5 billion a year in Afghanistan.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Sarah Chayes: So, that's a significant revenue stream for a corrupt network. And the point is that there's a return for that money, which is protection. So that means you can't even focus on any local-level corrupt official without getting Karzai into the game.

And that meant that the US government had to be involved at an equally high level. And this is why I come back to civilians rather than military. As you point out, corruption isn't really the military's job to address. Now, there are ways they can not make it infinitely worse, like a lotta their contracting and partnering practices, right?

But at the highest level, it's gotta be the secretary of state or the president of the United States. And the secretary of state was AWOL on Afghanistan. She didn't want anything to do with it, you know, from when I was in the government from 2008 or 2009.

And the president really just wanted Afghanistan off the front pages. He just didn't wanna know about it. So, Karzai was great at playing that. And I would watch Karzai manipulate, you know. So, he would throw a temper tantrum any time there was any inkling of pressure on corruption. He would throw a huge temper tantrum.

And John Kerry was kinda detailed at the time. He was in the Senate. And he was kinda detailed to, like, be the Karzai hand-holder. So, you know, Kerry would show up. And he'd walk Karzai around the Rose Garden for two or three days on end. And then, he'd, like, go off to Pakistan 'cause he was in the region. And then, Karzai would throw another temper tantrum. And Kerry would have to come back and hold his hand for another day around the Rose Garden.

Well, I mean, you've been in political reporting, right? (LAUGH) You know how precious these people's time is. You take four or five days out of the life of, you know, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate? I mean, that's a huge dent in his schedule.

And so, that's how Karzai kept the US government at bay. And frankly, I have to say that my view is that the civilians, civilian leadership, meaning the very top civilians in the US government, found it less risky to kill US soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan than to suffer the political risk of doing something that would actually improve the chances of winning the war.

Chris Hayes: But the thing you're saying, it seems to me, I mean, my understanding of what you're saying here, and I've read your writing on this so it's not just what you're saying here--

Sarah Chayes: Yeah--

Chris Hayes: --but, like, fundamentally the structure of the government to extent there is a government in Afghanistan is fundamentally predatory. You just shroud it as a protection rag. It's vertically integrated. What it is institutionally, in an existential sense, is corrupt.

Like, it's not like corruption is some side thing to it. It's what is the function. And ergo, getting rid of corruption would be (LAUGH) an existential threat to Karzai. And so, I guess the question is like: Well, then what do you do? Like, what's the solution there? Because you're not talking about, like, reforms at the margins is my understanding.

Sarah Chayes: You're exactly right. But I would just adjust your vocabulary a tiny bit. There was nothing in the institutions that were established, you know, upon the fall of the Taliban that guaranteed corruption. What guaranteed corruption was the incentive structures that were put in place. And we were a big part of putting those incentive structures in place--

Chris Hayes: Right. Right. Right. Gotcha. Yes--

Sarah Chayes: Because who we partnered with and how we partnered with them was going to determine, you know, build the incentive structures. And they were very, very powerful. And that's why I kind of gravitated toward the military. Because as much as the military might not be the ideal instrument to address corruption from a kind of US institutional point of view, it was the most powerful organization on the ground apart from the CIA.

So, you had to have one or both of those guys on your side. Or else, I mean, nothing the State Department was gonna do, unless it really shaped military action, was going to affect the dynamic because of how big the military footprint was. And so, what I would say is you could have constructed an incentive structure.

And that's what I was trying to make happen when I was working for Mullen was kind of show what a different type of levers applied to Karzai might look like. And we came up with all of these different, you know, I mean, I did one of these classic government papers, you know, with all these different options, and likely outcomes, and likely negative outcomes, and mitigation strategies, (LAUGH) and all this kinda thing which went nowhere.

You know, and Chris, not to, like, yank our heads around to look at home, but it's really easy to talk about corruption in a place like Afghanistan. I mean, the really kinda earth-shattering or gut-wrenching thing that I discovered as I continued to explore this fundamental issue of sophisticated networked corruption, is that we're, like, on the spectrum.

And so, what you just said about Afghanistan, you know, reforms around the margins aren't really gonna do the trick, are they? I would submit, or I'd at least like to pose that question, about the United States, too. Like, how deep are the reforms that we need here, you know, to get us on a healthier track?

Chris Hayes: Right. Okay, so I just wanna take a step back because I think there's sort of two really fascinating questions to pursue here. So first, I just wanna say clearly up front that I think that in the corruption literature and the discourse around corruption, you know, corruption has always been very kind of racialized and very much wielded, I think, by European governance, by colonizers. In the South, it was wielded by the white supremacist redeemers as like, "Oh, look at those, you know, Black people, brown people, foreign people. They're all corrupt," as this kind of, like, really disgusting, gross, and racist, existentialist, like, statement about who they are.

And I wanna just be very clear that, like, I whole-heartedly reject that, (LAUGH) that governments all over the world by all kinds of people in different periods are corrupt in all kinds of different ways. So, I don't wanna say there's anything, like, essential here.

But what I do wanna say, and I think this applies, this gets to the heart of sort of the deep question about politics and society that you're asking, and also the failures in Afghanistan is: What is corruption? Why does it embed itself? And then most interestingly, like, what happens? What are the case studies? What are the examples of when the back is broken of a corrupt system, wherever that might be, like, how it comes about? Because that to me, like, that was the sort of thing that we were kind of searching for in Afghanistan. I mean, I don't even know if we were honestly.

Sarah Chayes: I don't think we were.

Chris Hayes: I don't know what the hell. We weren't, yes. What you're saying is that we weren't trying to do that--

Sarah Chayes: Correct.

Chris Hayes: What I'm trying to say is, let's imagine we were. Let's imagine that Sarah Chayes or some, you know, genuine, some powerful interest who genuinely wanna break the back of the corruption in Afghanistan, provide an Afghan government that was responsive, transparent, honest to the people that live in that society. Like, what do we know about how you go from corruption to non-corruption (LAUGH) in a general sense as someone who's thought a lot about this?

Sarah Chayes: It's a really tough one because there are so few examples. But lemme go (LAUGH) back to the first half of the question. And let's--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, please--

Sarah Chayes: --talk about, like, what corruption is. And it's interesting, the word has the same really deep ambiguity in every language that I can say it in, that it has in English, meaning there's both a material and a kind of moral resonance to it. And I find that kind of interesting. But what I'm getting at here, so, excuse me if I say back for the past year, but you know that guy Midas? (LAUGH) You know the myth of Midas?

Chris Hayes: Uh-huh (AFFIRM), uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Sarah Chayes: He's the guy, you know, who everything he touched would turn to gold? I mean, what's so interesting is when you say in current English, "Someone has the Midas touch," is that a positive or a negative?

Chris Hayes: I think it's a positive, although it seems like sort of a pain in the ass if you're, like, (LAUGH) well, thinkin' of a lotta different things--

Sarah Chayes: Well, I mean, isn't it interesting? Because the story of the myth is that it's a complete catastrophe--

Chris Hayes: Curse. Yes, exactly--

Sarah Chayes: It's a catastrophe. Why? Because it's infinite. Because everything he touches turns to gold. Because he converts everything of incomparable value, you know? I mean, irreplaceable things like the food that we eat, the apple tree. In Hawthorne's version, his own daughter who he stoops to kiss on her forehead because she's trying to comfort him because she sees how horrified he is. And he kills her. He kills her.

And I find that such a powerful myth for explaining what corruption is. Lemme just track it. Because what it's about is where money is not something that you need for something else. It's money that's not about enough. It's about winning. And that's an endless race, right? That's a race with no finish line.

And the people who get caught up in that race are the most dangerous people to the human species and the rest of the planet that I can imagine. Basically, again, not to get too off track, I'm gonna get back to corruption. But if you look at the climate crisis that we're all dealing with right now and, you know, Siberia burning up, that is caused by people who are engaged in this race, right, and who knew back in the 1950s that this would result. And they lied to us about it, so that they can continue converting the irreplaceable treasures on this Earth into not gold anymore, but zeroes in bank accounts.

And so, you can think of this like a mnemonic device, whatever, a way of remembering this. It's the Midas disease. These people have the Midas disease, and they're gonna kill us. So, what do they do? They almost always organize in networks or coalitions, right? Because the rest of us who are victims of their behavior, we're way stronger than them if we can band together and reign them in.

So, what they do is the band together and capture the rulemaking process, disable all of the protections that governments may erect on our behalf, and bend and repurpose, you know, basically government institutions and agencies to serve their networks instead of serving the public at large.

And so, that really is what corruption is. Yes, it's the abuse of power for personal gain. But when it's really dangerous, it's not just one venal guy, you know, with his hand in the cookie jar. That's not the problem. The problem of the government officials who engage in corruption is, of course, yes, they steer public funds to themselves and their cronies. But I think even more importantly, they de-nature the function of government to serve in perpetuity their cronies and themselves, and at the expense of the public interest.

And what's worse is that when the public stands up to this, they deploy a really effective countermove. They deploy a number of 'em. But I think the most effective one that they deploy is dividing the public up along identity divides. And those identity divides can be ethic as in Afghanistan between, you know, Pashto speakers and Persian speakers. It can be sectarian, as in Lebanon. It can be racial, as here. It can be political, as here. It can urban versus rural, you know.

And the problem is that we tend to organize around our identity groups, even, you know, in spite of our shared interests. Those identity group interests tend to trump, excusing the word, the, I think much more important, shared egalitarian interest in curbing the super rich, frankly, the Midas disease people who are gonna destroy the world.

So, that's a kind of broad way of understanding corruption. They do it, as I say, by repurposing, by capturing revenue streams, whatever they might be. In every single country I've looked at, three that are always captured are energy, finance, and high-end real estate. Those three show up all the time.

And then there can be variations, depending. You know, in Afghanistan it might be pomegranates. In Tunisia, it was dates, you know. Property, always. I mean, that's the high-end real estate. And they, you know, capture the justice function so that they can, you know, mete out punishment and impunity. They often usually capture the law, the rule-writing capacity.

Where they don't capture justice, they work around it. So, in Egypt, for example, General Sisi couldn't quite gain control of the civilian judiciary. So, he just got laws passed that expanded the jurisdiction of the military courts, you know, stuff like that.

Anyhow, then you ask: What's an example of curbing this? And I think one of the only examples I can come up with is the New Deal and its European counterparts in the late 1930s and after World War II. I think there were a series of laws and regulations put in place.

There was a certain amount of punishment of wrongdoers, particularly in the banking sector. And there were protections put in place for ordinary people to join forces to stand up to the Midas-diseased cliques, you know, like protections for labor organization and things like that.

Anti-trust, I mean, a lot of things that we don't think of as technically corruption. But anti-bribery legislation was way, way, way stronger than it is now, much stronger. And anti-trust enforcement was completely different. It wasn't just about price. It was also about dominant political power and, you know, snuffing out of competition. And that all changed beginning in the very late 1970s and the early 1980s when the money maximizers started organizing again.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after this quick break.

Chris Hayes: You said something. There's a bunch of stuff there that I wanted to sort of follow up on. So one that was interesting to me is just the idea of, you know, corrupt networks using these sort of demagogic appeals to identity as a means of mobilizing or fracturing a public that would unite against them. And I'm just curious to hear what that looked like in Afghanistan.

Sarah Chayes: Particularly, it had to do with the ethnic divisions which were very sore in Afghanistan, much as in Lebanon, right? I mean, you had come out of, you know, the Taliban were a buffer between, you know, about five years of absolutely unspeakable violence along ethnic lines, and the US sort of occupation, if you will.

And when I would ask Afghans to rank the governments, my neighbors would say, "Well, the government that was in power when the Soviets first started coming was the best. And then the next best was Taliban. And the next was you, and the worst was the Civil War."

So, it's both sore and quite easy to revive, similarly in the Balkans. I mean, the Balkans in another generation, you wouldn't have known the difference between Serbs and Croats. They were so intermarried, that if war had not been lit when it was, you know, a Milošević arriving 30 or 40 years later wouldn't have been able to tear that country apart.

And so, that's really what it looked like in Afghanistan. But I've seen it in Nigeria around religion between the more Muslim north and the more Christian south. Lebanon is a classic example where there were major, major anti-corruption uprisings in 2015. It's been going on, you know, for a while there.

But there what you had was a largely secular, it was really interesting. It was a largely secular kind of leadership to the uprisings that were very focused on sectarianism. So they were alert to the dangers of division along religious lines because that is what they had suffered from so much in the past.

What they completely missed was the class division. So when a bunch of Shiite kids from the slums of south Beirut started joining the demonstrations, the kinda hyper-educated elite leadership freaked out and divided the two groups. So they actually fell into the very trap that the corrupt elites wanted them to fall into.

And then after that, people started getting texts on their phones that were much more along sectarian lines. "Oh, didn't you know that's an (UNINTEL) demonstration? Or that's a, you know, Shiite demonstration," or whatever. And then, also the patronage. "I thought your cousin, weren't you looking for a job for your cousin?" And it just fell apart.

Chris Hayes: The other thing you said that stuck with me is something that I encountered when I was a reporter in Chicago, which is about the sort of Midas touch and the kind of obsessive acquisitiveness.

Sarah Chayes: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And the fact that at certain point, it's not really about the money. And I remember, like, there would be these people, there was some alderman, you know, who would get, you know, busted in Chicago over, like, I don't know, $5,000, $8,000. I mean, you know, it's real money. It's not nothing. But it's also, like, doesn't really seem worth the risk. (LAUGH)

And I was always struck by that when I was covering Chicago politics because there's a lot of corruption obviously, very famously in Chicago. And it would always strike me that, like, these people, you know, were getting themselves into trouble that would have huge ramifications for them that wasn't really worth the amount of money they were getting out of it.

Sarah Chayes: 100%. And I actually came to grips with that also, in looking at it in a different light in Nigeria where a judge organized a whole group of justice sector professionals to have a conversation about all of this. And one of the guys really raised a fascinating question which had to do with right and wrong, and where actually in some cases you're not in a situation of right and wrong.

I mean, it's easy to make it sound like that's what it is. But in a certain cultural context, you're actually dealing with conflicting priorities. So that alderman may have felt that he or she owed, you know, some goodies down the line. Do you know what I mean--

Chris Hayes: Right. That's right.

Sarah Chayes: And that that was expected of him or her. Or there might have been, you know, a cousin who really needed a leg up for this job. And you're stuck in this position of conflicting priorities. And that's where I think actually any corruption training could be very useful to just help people practice the lines when they get that call, so that the reflex that comes out is a rehearsed, gentle, loving way of shutting down the request. Do you see what I mean? But I'm--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, no. I mean, that's fascinating. Because your point here is about, because it's socially embedded and it's embedded in networks, that, like, it's being driven at some level by this sort of obsessive acquisitiveness and kind of Midas-touch greed.

But it's so broadly distributed, that it's also being driven at the ground level by a whole bunch of sort of co-dependencies, and counter-dependencies, and just, you know, relations, kinship, whatever, that are people not even being bad people in the context they're in. They're, you know, helping out their cousin or brother or paying back someone that did them a solid.

Sarah Chayes: What a beautiful way of putting it. Because what you do by framing it that way, Chris, is you defuse the argument that says: Well, if they hate corruption so much, how come they're participating in it? Well, you participate in it because once the corrupt system is embedded, as you put it, it's the only way to survive.

And so, that's the kind of demand mechanism that serves to prime the pump, if you will. Because that alderman is also probably paying some money up the line, right? And so another way of looking at that is in a place like Afghanistan, the police are underpaid. They can't live on their salaries. And so, that kind of starts the flow of corruption.

Chris Hayes: (LAUGH) Right. And it's almost that that's priced in. I mean, it's like the salary is not your full compensation because there's an understanding that your full compensation--

Sarah Chayes: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: --will also entail the other stuff. And so, if you get rid of that, then you're just not making enough money.

Sarah Chayes: Exactly. Exactly. And so, what I would say is in a country like Afghanistan or Nigeria, that kind of street-level corruption is really, really dangerous. Not so much because of the amount of money, which is how everyone always wants to calculate it, right? And that's why they tend to dismiss it as petty corruption. "Ah, it's just a couple of bucks. Doesn't matter."

What people overlook is the humiliation factor. If the cop came over to my cooperative member's car, and he was a former police officer himself, and said, "Hey, you know, I've got three daughters. And the youngest one, like, she just grew out of her sandals. And I don't have money to buy her another pair of sandals." My God, my cooperative member would have handed the guy the sandals off his own daughter's feet, right?

But that's not how it happens. It always happens in an abusive, you know, psychologically domineering way. And so, with very poor people, all they've got left is their pride. And so, a relatively small amount of money is gonna generate a large amount of indignation. And that's where you get insurrections. And that's where you get people joining the Taliban 'cause what they really start wanting to do is shoot the cop.

Well, you know, in Kandahar, I mean, you had to work really hard if you were a young man not to join the Taliban. So, how many shakedowns does it take before you say, you know, "Screw you. (LAUGH) I'm gonna get my own back." But that side of corruption is different from the Midas disease. It is fueled by the Midas disease because those cops are underpaid and the example that they're following is coming from the top.

You know, half a dozen gas pipelines piercing the bedrock of West Virginia for gas that no West Virginian is ever gonna use because it's being sent to a, you know, depot on the Atlantic to be exported. Well, you know, I've spent some time in oil and gas exporting countries. They look like Russia. They look like Nigeria. They look like Angola. You know, they look like Brazil or Venezuela. You know, is that infinite wealth really worth that kind of a future for our country?

Chris Hayes: Lemme ask you this. So, because (LAUGH) I feel weird playing the--

Sarah Chayes: I know--

Chris Hayes: --devil's advocate, but I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna play it, and not because I necessarily hold the view, but I just wanna sort of push on this a little. Because one of the things that I feel like is really important, and you lived in Afghanistan for years, and you worked with a cooperative there and activists there who were fighting for transparency and things like that.

Like, I wanna try to hold two ideas at the same time, which is that like, the US is a very corrupt place in many ways. And there's a lot of sort of rapacious and predatory actions. And at the same time, the quality of governance here is better than in Afghanistan. (LAUGH)

And there are huge differences between places where the corruption is parasitic and endemic, but allows for a public sphere to exist in places where it so cannibalizes the very nature of the public that you have something like, you know, what's in Lebanon, for instance, which is, you know, teetering on essentially a failed state, I mean, sort of plodding along.

And I guess the question is like: Is that a difference in kind or a difference of degree, you know? Like, how do you understand that spectrum between places that can be very corrupt? I think the US is a very corrupt place in many ways, and a brutal place in many ways in terms of inequality and levels of violence, interpersonal violence here, state violence. But it just seems to be in a very different category than a place like Lebanon or Afghanistan.

Sarah Chayes: I love again how you frame that. And I would say it's a difference of degree, not of kind. And that was a very hard judgment and realization for me to come to. And I came to it only when I really turned the lens that I had honed looking at places like Nepal, or Honduras, or Afghanistan, on the United States and trying to apply the same methodology.

And that's what I did for the book that came out last year called On Corruption in America: And What is it Stake? And I have to tell you, it was really hard to write, not because I didn't expect to find what I found, that's why I set out to write the book, but because finding it was so much harder to take than I expected it to be.

And I would just say, yes, there is, you know, a measure of governance. But I really think you just have to scratch the surface, particularly in pockets in the United States, to see places that, you know, I mean, and even in relatively wealthy, look at the streets in some pretty wealthy neighborhoods, you know.

I mean, they get torn up, and torn up again, and torn up again. You know, it's like, not to mention the inequality in this country, not to mention, you know, the life expectancy and the health care disparities that we've been seeing. And, I mean, I think health care in this country is a great example.

I also think, as I said, climate change, which we've done a lot to exacerbate, probably more than any other country. I mean, I get it. We're not suffering yet the worst impacts of it. But we have changed the, you know, chemistry of the entire Earth. You know, we've set in motion a process that is killing vital organs like the Amazon or like the tundra or like, you know, the coral reefs of this planet. And those are irreplaceable. So, I--

Chris Hayes: Right. If you go back to the, like, cannibalizing metaphor, (LAUGH) I guess that--

Sarah Chayes: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: --we are doing that in the deepest, most biological sense in some way--

Sarah Chayes: For sure. And what I would say is what struck me researching On Corruption was a deep dive I did into the 19th century, which I hadn't really intended to go that deep. But the 19th century was like an early 20th century. It was about the last time that not only the United States, but the rest of the industrialized world or industrializing world, was in the grip of transnational kleptocratic networks to the same degree that it is today.

And a couple of things come to mind. One is that these networks existed and flourished not only under various political parties, but under different political systems. And that really blew me. It was like, German empire, French republic, English monarchy, United States. You know, we were all subject to the same thing.

And that was the time that we rooted the type of corruption that, as you pointed out earlier, we now blame and Black and brown people. We were the ones who rooted it in the global South through the institutions of colonization that we put in place.

And so unfortunately, what happened is that the end of the colonial era, elites in a lot of those countries who had been deeply influenced by the structure, you know, that European, mostly European but not exclusively European countries, had put in place. They kinda stepped into the same institutions and started profiting from them. Colonial masters wanted the goods at the knock-off prices that they had been getting them. And that could be rubber. And then it could be oil.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, the Galeano book, Open Veins of Latin America, is really great on this, about just the nature of, you know, 300, 400 years of extractive institutions (LAUGH) that are built up that are designed and evolve over time for this very specific purpose, which is to take the value out of the ground, whatever that value is, you know, whether it's the cattle or the silver in the mine, and to transfer it out. That, you know, when you change who's at the top running that system, you know, a lot of those (LAUGH) extractive institutions remain. And they get, you know, different people running them. But the institutions of extraction are incredibly durable. And obviously, you know, we've seen that throughout this country as well.

Sarah Chayes: I wanna say, I wanna go back to this image, especially if those governments are run by people afflicted with the Midas disease. Especially if those institutions are run at periods when amount of money is the key ruler, meaning yard stick, determining your social status.

So, for example, Franklin Roosevelt and even Eisenhower I don't think were afflicted by the Midas disease. And so, the institutions did something different. You know, there's another thing. The value is being extracted from the land, from that very finite thing which is planet Earth. And it's being exported, as you point out.

But I would take it further and say it's being transformed just like Midas transformed his daughter. It's being transformed into gold, which intrinsically is not (LAUGH) really valuable. Worse today, it's being transformed into electronic signals. It's being transformed into zeroes, you know, that happen to be in people's bank accounts. But for me, that's like an image I can't shake is the idea of the Amazon being converted into a zero.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, for what? The final question I wanna ask you is about what we are leaving behind in Afghanistan. You know, I don't know. I feel strongly and have felt strongly for a while that we need to leave. I think that, you know, there's a sort of perpetual logic that had to be broken at some point. I'd rather it broken earlier.

And I say this as American citizen who's never been to Afghanistan, and that's admittedly a blinkered view in its own way because I don't know what's going on there. I've never been there. My own view is just a citizen of this republic and, you know, what we're doing there, and what the cost has been, and what we've done to other people. But I just wondered your thoughts as this 20-year enterprise comes to a close about what we are leaving.

Sarah Chayes: You know, it's a really tough question. Because like you, I had gotten to the point, you know, even by 2010, certainly 2011, where I thought we should come out. I thought I should come out because I didn't think the likelihood of us helping bring forth what we had stated that we intended to bring forth, the likelihood was over. That was not, certainly by 2011, I knew that things were gonna end this way.

And so what I found myself, actually a sentence went through my head. "I'm not willing to die for this anymore." Not, "I'm not willing to die for the ideal, for the intention." But I'm not willing to die for the way it's gone because it's not gonna succeed.

And so, of course the immediate next sentence is: Well, if I'm not gonna die, why should anybody else die? Why should any other American die? Therefore, logically I had to basically be in favor of coming out. That being said, Chris, I've done a complete turnaround in the last year. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Really?Sarah Chayes: And here's why. Because our presence there doesn't cost us anything. There's a couple thousand soldiers. It doesn't cost anything monetarily, compared to, you know, running exercises anywhere else. You know, I mean, it just is not that much more expensive.

There is a lower likelihood that a deployed, you know, soldier or officer, American soldier or officer will die in Afghanistan than on a base in the United States because they're not allowed to drink in Afghanistan. And so, they don't get into car accidents. So, literally the life expectancy is higher for a young man or a woman in Afghanistan than on base in the United States.

And thirdly, I don't think at the moment there's any political cost. I do not hear the Americans that were jumping up and down begging President Biden to get out as soon as possible. I think Americans are much concerned about, you know, the state of the economy, about the state of the environment, about the state of COVID, about, you know, disparities of various kinds in this country.

It wasn't on the radar. I think this was a Biden bugbear because he always wanted to come out. I think it's personal. And I think the way it's happened is incredibly damaging to Afghanistan. Partly, President Trump made it really damaging because what he basically did with the special envoy, Zal Khalilzad, who basically spent his time twisting the arm of the president of Afghanistan.

And as you'll have noticed, I don't waste a lotta love on Afghan government officials. But President Ghani really got his arm twisted to make concessions to the Taliban. And they were ridiculous concessions. They were like, "Set free hundreds of prisoners, you know, with no guarantees that they wouldn't take the field again," and of various, I mean, it was just on and on.

Not to mention that pulling out of Afghanistan deprives the Afghan government (INAUDIBLE) are pulling out, deprives the Afghan government of any leverage. And then, so we deprive the Afghan government of all of its leverage. And then we say, "Okay, now you go off and negotiate with the Taliban." Taliban are laughing.

They've still got Pakistan financing and training and equipping men. And the Afghan government has kinda nothing and is shut out of the negotiations, which in a place like Afghanistan is completely humiliating. I mean, think about in Washington how important it is who's in the room. So the Afghan government isn't even in the room.

So, that happens. And, you know, we're talking about women and education and things like that. And those are unbelievably important. And as a woman and a woman who lived in Kandahar for a decade, believe me. I've got that. What we're not hearing about is the young men who are being dragged out of their homes every single night right now in Kandahar province, I mean, and shot by the Taliban.

And this is people who may have worked for the government, who are suspected of having worked for the government, whose fathers may have worked for the government. And they're being assassinated to the tune of hundreds per week right now.

And there's another thing we're not thinking about. (LAUGH) Back to the Earth. We can finish this up on the Earth. How much toxic waste do you suppose hundreds of thousands of military personnel and an equal number of contractors pile up over the course of 20 years? Can I use an unbroadcastable word?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sarah Chayes: (LAUGH) What are we doing with our shit, you know? I mean, can you imagine, not only are we not leaving Afghanistan better than we found it. But we're leaving 20 years of crap behind us?

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, we know that, you know, in the forward operating bases where they had to burn their shit. You know, we have all this data that's come in about how toxic the burn pits were. I mean, you've got, like, you know, all kinds of vets with health issues from that. And it makes sense.

I mean, if you just burn a lot of, like, toxic mass, (LAUGH) like, that's gonna put awful things in the air that you then inhale. And so, just off that small scale, we know that. And that's just, we're talking about the folks that were serving there that were in these conditions and dealing with burn pits all the time. But, like, yes. I mean, I hadn't thought about, like, just the sheer scope of waste, and toxic material, and sewage, and chemicals that we have left in the land that we are in.

Sarah Chayes: And thanks for meaning sewage and chemicals. Because it's air, and it's water. And guess what you don't have a lot of in Afghanistan.

Chris Hayes: Not a lotta water.

Sarah Chayes: So, I have to say that I find this departure kind of like a heartbreaking, you know, final note on a heartbreaking two decades.

Chris Hayes: Sarah Chayes is a journalist, an author. She writes about corruption, both in Afghanistan, across the developing and developed world and right here at home in the US. Her latest book is called On Corruption in America: And What is at Stake. Sarah, that was great. Thank you so much--

Sarah Chayes: Thank you, Chris.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.