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‘Fighting Monsters’: Corruption and its impact on Defence and Security

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Corruption: The Problem

Corruption is a monster that challenges all parts of every society and at every level. It is considered a key Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations to tackle corruption if a society is to achieve stability. Whether it is driven by need to make up for miniscule salaries or by greed to gain ever more money, the effect on the nation and society can be profound. It is intended in this article to look at how corruption impacts not only on the defence and security institutions of a nation but also its impact on the very concept of security itself. However, as Nietzsche warns it is an abyss that can stare back and the toleration of corruption for short term advantage will often cause long term damage to a mission.

Corruption has many different definitions and is often used in a partisan way to denigrate opposition and there is a danger you open the debate on definition to the cul de sac of arguing along the lines of ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. That is not the intent here and the definition used here coalesces around that used by the Non- Government Organisation (NGO) Transparency International (TI) which calls corruption ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Even this can be up for discussion if you decide to debate the meaning of ‘entrusted power’- is that public office? Are private companies excluded? Or what is ‘private gain’- after all has not some corruption taken place for a greater public good such as the paying of informants to prevent an atrocity? It is however not intended to debate on the ethical lines at the margins but consider the broad consensus around the idea of corruption where if it does not feel right it can probably be considered a form of corruption. One of the key factors is to remember ‘private gain’ is not just about pure financial gain but also power, influence, appointments and sexual exploitation

Corruption is notoriously difficult to measure as by definition it is hidden by those in positions of trust carrying it out. TI carry out considerable research to produce indices such as the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) , which looks at a population’s perception of corruption in their country by polling and the Government Defence Index (GI) which looks at the risk of corruption in Defence and Security institutions through their efficiency of control measures. These however are only really snapshots of one view of the risks and perceptions of corruption. The reality can often be very different as high degrees of corruption may be tolerated as ‘the way things are done’ leading to a misleading perception especially as the methodology was essentially developed in a Northern European cultural construct as that is where TI originated. There is a general consensus that somewhere between 15% and 20% of defence spending worldwide is lost to corruptionwith some countries much higher. Optimistically that means $300-$400 Bn a year goes to ‘private gain’ rather than the purpose it was intended for.

This loss can often be rationalised away as ‘facilitation’, ‘the cost of doing business’, ‘meeting a greater good’ or just part of the sort of Clausewitzian friction that exists in warfare. The reality is however corruption is far more than the ‘fog of war’ and fuels insecurity and instability. Having said how difficult it is to quantify corruption there is however considerable research carried out into the pernicious effect of corruption. There is a strong statistical link between peace and corruption. Research has suggested that as the amount of corruption increases so insecurity increases. This is shown in the Figure below extracted from Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) Report ‘Peace and Corruption':

One of the most striking aspects of this statistical relationship between the Global Peace Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is the marked presence of a ‘tipping point’. This suggests that if a country has low levels of corruption then modest increases in corruption will have little effect on overall peace and stability. However, once a certain threshold is reached, that data suggests is a CPI of around 30, then relatively small increases in corruption can result in large decreases in peace and increases in insecurity. This is also reflected in the figure below showing trends over time that as corruption has increased so insecurity has increased:

The IEP analysis identifies around 64 countries that sit in and around this ‘tipping point’ ranging from Kazakhstan and Albania through to Greece and Indonesia. These countries are those that if the corruption trend highlighted above is not tackled then these countries are vulnerable to big increases in insecurity and so potentially head down the road to becoming failed states that the conflict that implies. It could be argued that countries around this ‘tipping point’ will have the largest impact on maintaining and improving security by strong anti-corruption now to prevent cataclysmic decline.

It is a point of debate whether the relationship identified above is causal or consequential.

The argument could be made compellingly that an increase in instability provides the opportunity for more corruption and so corruption rates follow insecurity. This is often argued in the case of Afghanistan where it is often asserted that corruption flourishes because there is too much insecurity to tackle it with law enforcement focussed on terrorism. This means a blind eye is turned to corruption for higher operational imperatives and the theory being that once insecurity is tackled then corruption rates will automatically fall too.

Countries that fail to control corruption…are more prone to violent extremism and tend to witness a greater number of incidents linked to violent extremism

UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism

However there is considerable evidence to suggest this rationale is flawed. The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in the report ‘Corruption in Conflict’ reflecting on the lessons of US involvement in Afghanistan was clear in stating ‘Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fuelling grievances against the Afghan government and channelling material support to the insurgency’. The report was clear that it was corruption that drove the instability and not instability that drove the corruption. The case to tackle corruption for security reasons is therefore a more compelling one than hoping corruption will decline as security is imposed. The experience from Afghanistan in fact suggests that the nirvana of security is impossible to reach unless corruption is tackled.

Why this may be is often not clear and open to debate but generally factors fall into three broad areas. Firstly the forces of law and order are weakened through corruption creating a vacuum. This was recognised in the UK Anti-Corruption Summit Final Communique of May 2016:

When security institutions are undermined through corruption, they are unable to protect people, defeat terrorism and organised crime, or defend national sovereignty. Corruption in the military, police and border forces also causes people to lose faith in legitimate authority and opens up a vacuum that terrorists, drug traffickers, human traffickers and other organised criminals exploit

The resilience and integrity of defence and security forces and their ability to resist corruption is essential to global stability. Low levels of security institutional integrity create the opportunity for corruption to fuel instability as organised crime exploits the vacuum and can in extremis develop into criminal insurgencies that threaten the existence of the state or form a nexus with violent extremism that politically threatens the state.

The second area is that corruption in governments feeds an opposing narrative. As the IEP recognises there seems to be a level of corruption that while illegal is often tolerated as ‘the way things are done’. This seems to have a minor impact on insecurity up to the ‘tipping point’. Beyond that point is where it is no longer accepted as the ‘way things are’ and that opposing narratives become more compelling. These may manifest themselves over an often small scandal or event but has a disproportionate effect on public dissatisfaction. This has been seen in the Arab Spring and the ‘Colour Revolutions’ where the strategic narrative rapidly shifts. It is this that Violent Extremist Organisations can tap into, with corruption often providing the ‘casus belli’ for the use of terrorism and violent means. Corruption taps into the almost visceral human emotions surrounding injustice that has sparked off countless uprisings, insurgencies and revolutions.

This leads to a third even more sinister area. This is where corruption is not only exploited as an opportunity by those who may gain from insecurity through regime change or organised crime but is actually ‘weaponised’ as a means of pursuing political or economic ends. Whether it is in criminal insurgencies such as those that plagued South America through drug cartels or the pursuit of ‘Hybrid War ’ in Eastern Europe and elsewhere there is considerable evidence through reports such as the ‘Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe’ by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that corruption can be used to facilitate increased political and economic influence in opposing counties

This theorises that an ‘Unvirtuous Circle’ is created whereby economic influence corruptly buys political influence which in turn leads to increased economic influence with the final aim being effectively state capture and the state an effective satellite. The case is made that this has effectively happened in some states in the Russian near abroad with others extremely vulnerable. The theory is expounded that when 12% of a country’s GDP / Economic potential falls under control of the belligerent country then state capture is a real possibility. This is not an exclusively Russian concept and similar weaponisation is seen in Chinese use of the ‘Three Warfares’ (三战). Consisting of public opinion warfare (舆论战), psychological warfare (心理战), and legal warfare (法律战), the three warfares have been critical components of China’s strategic approach in the South China Sea and beyond. Corruption is used to generate a similar ‘unvirtuous cycle’ to undermine an adversary’s strategic narrative and its organisations to counter perceived ‘idealogical assaults’ and bolster conventional military power.

Bearing in mind the impact that corruption can have on security why has it has taken so long to recognise or even talk about it as an issue? Corruption is something that thrives in complexity and ambiguity and can be likened to rain water on a leaking roof; no matter where you patch it the water will find its way through. Complex security environments in particular provide huge potential for corruption to flourish.

For corruption to take place requires a triangle of factors to come together. It requires a motivation, an opportunity and a rationalisation by those carrying out the corruption. That might be through constructing an infallible logic to themselves that it is deserved or for a greater good or it could simply be a balance between risk of being caught and the reward of carrying the corruption out. Like a fire that needs Fuel, a source of ignition and oxygen to stop corruption like fighting a fire you take away one side of the triangle. To do this in reality is however complex. In complex security environments this difficulty is magnified.

Complex security environments could be defined as security environments that are not only unknown, but unknowable and constantly changing and which includes not only persistent factors such as terrorism, narcotics, smuggling, trafficking and international criminal networks but are overlaid with short term events such as natural disasters, humanitarian crises, hybrid warfare and open conflict which provide ample opportunity, motivation and rationale for corruption. The complexity is often defined by a nexus of Corruption, Crime and Terrorism (CCT) with all three factors enabling and causing the others to undermine state stability, what Louise Shelley calls a ‘Dirty Entanglement

Often uppermost in the rationalisationof corruption in conflict situations is the operational imperative. Drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analogy of fighting monsters to fight an evil you may become that evil yourself, meaning that corruption may be tolerated or even encouraged for a perceived ‘higher good’ but you risk becoming corrupt yourself as a result.

Committal of international forces and humanitarian resources is a significant political risk not just in terms of cost or ‘blood and treasure’, but also reputational risk to the politician. There is often therefore considerable pressure on field commanders and mission heads to mitigate that risk by achieving mission success which may in itself mean minimising casualties or contracting out activity to add ‘moral distance’ between the political decision-maker and the activity. The trouble with this pressure is that it often means corruption is overlooked or even actively enabled to meet the short term imperative of ‘mission success’ even if it creates problems later on. Contracting out activity is often politically palatable but commercial pressure on contractors means often they themselves enable corruption to meet their ‘mission success’ criteria. This may require bribing insurgents for access that effectively funds the insurgency. At its extreme it creates a wide range of stakeholders with no interest in stability as it reduces financial flows and the opportunity for corruption.

Complex security environments as well as proving motivation and rationalisation for corruption also provide huge opportunity that reinforces that rationalisation. Sun T’su famously said ‘In the midst of chaos there is opportunity’. He meant it as an opportunity for a commander to win but it is equally applicable to corruption. In instability there is chaos and very often institutions that need to be resilient to corruption may be ineffective or swept away all together.

The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in the report ‘Corruption in Conflict’ identified this in Afghanistan by quoting the long recognised metric of absorption rate for external aid that suggests a state can only effectively absorb between 25% and 40% of its GDP each year. Anything above that level feeds into corruption and loss.At points in Afghanistan the US alone was feeding in 110% of GDP, with a lot of that in cash. It is perhaps not surprising that much of that funding was lost to corruption and the insurgency. Adding to the absorption rate is the huge amount of aid and spending that often flows in. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US taxpayer between $4tn and $6tn with enough reward potential to make corruption worthwhile not helped by an often confused international oversight that falls out of coalitions of partners with wildly varying motivations.

Drugs seized during an Afghan Counter Narcotics Operation 2016

Corruption and failing to understand its role can also add to the ‘fog of war’ and create dangerous instability. There is considerable evidence that the misreading of the centrality of corruption in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq contributed to a faulty conclusion that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). What was assessed to be front companies set up by personnel in the nuclear industry was read as concealment of capability when in fact subsequent analysis revealed much of the the subterfuge was to siphon off funds for private gain and not acquire WMD components.

The Response: What is the UK doing at the moment?

Corruption in all these cases is not a passive phenomenon that can be simply ‘boxed in’ by legislation and law enforcement it is an active and evolving force that requires agile and flexible capabilities to meet it. Whether it is those simply motivated by the need or desire for money or those who seek to exploit or manipulate those desires for political or economic ends the danger corruption presents is clear. Corruption is not something that can be isolated and cut out like a tumour it is a virus that inhabits every area of governance and society and any approach to tackling needs to respond is an all pervasive and constantly evolving way.

Prosecution on its own will not stop corruption and there needs to be institutional and systemic integrity to resist corruption as well. There is in fact extensive evidence that more legislation and regulation is rarely the answer. Research from the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-building (ERCAS) suggests there is no definitive causal link between more extensive anti-corruption legislation and increased control of corruption. The diagram below shows on the X Axis the extent of anti-corruption legislation increasing and on the Y Axis the effectiveness of the control of corruption increases. Whilst many countries with good control of corruption have extensive regulations (UK, USA, Estonia) there are also many countries that have equally extensive regulation with very limited control of corruption (Kenya, Ukraine, Albania). Japan by contrast has very limited anti-corruption regulation but very high control of corruption. The trend line shows that counter-intuitively as the amount of legislation increases the actual control of corruption decreases.

Context is clearly key and legislative and enforcement templates are unlikely to have an effective impact on the control of corruption. Integrity built through political and social construct therefore is as important as legislation and the challenge is building integrity in the context of the country based on its history and culture. Groups working on anti-corruption tend to focus on more on transparency and accountability rather than the role corruption plays in organised crime and terrorism. This has led to a stove-piping of responses and whilst many bodies look at the relationship of crime to terrorism the nexus with corruption is rarely addressed. Policies need to address the ‘Dirty Entanglement’ rather than the component parts.This reinforces the need for any support to be cross-departmental to see this context through multiple prisms rather than a single perspective. Bearing that in mind what can be done to reduce the threat that corruption poses to national security around the world?

The International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan brought this issue to head within NATO and in 2007 the NATO Building Integrity programme to build institutional resilience was established as:

a defence capacity-building programme that contributes to the Alliance’s mission to safeguard the freedom and security of its members. It provides Allies and partner countries with tailored support to reduce the risk of corruption in the defence and related security sector and to embed good governance principles and practices in their defence establishments.'

At the NATO Warsaw Summit on 9 July 2016 the Heads of State and Government of the 28 members of the Alliance formally endorsed the Building Integrity policy that reaffirmed that NATO is an alliance of shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law. These values are essential to what NATO is and what it does. Allies recognised that corruption and poor governance complicate every security challenge they face and undermine peace, security, prosperity and operational effectiveness. The Building Integrity Policy endorsed at the Warsaw Summit intends to reaffirm members’ and partners’ conviction that transparent and accountable defence institutions under democratic control are fundamental to stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and are essential for international security cooperation.

After a period operating under the auspices of NATO in 2013 the UK established the Building Integrity UK programme at the Defence Academy to help build overseas capacity and resilience by reducing the risk of corruption across the defence and security sector. By raising awareness of the problems of corruption and assisting in developing strategy options to tackle it the BI programme focuses on UK priority areas on a bi-lateral basis as well as supporting the wider multilateral programme through NATO and the EU through the European Security and Defence College (ESDC).

Building Integrity UK in action. Afghan General Officers Capstone Course in Kabul addressed by MG Tate USA , Senior Adviser to the Afghan Minister of Defence 2019.

The BI UK programme has delivered Foundation and Senior Leaders Courses to over a thousand delegates from over 70 countries including training trainers from international defence and security institutions . The impact of this modest investment can be considerable with the training of Ukrainian Internal Auditors at a cost of £200K saving the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence over $40m in 2 years.

The Future: What should the UK be doing?

Whilst the BI UK programme has achieved a great deal in awareness raising and developing overseas capability the UK needs to do more. Following the publication of the UK Anti Corruption Strategy 2017-2022 there is a greater recognition of the security implications of global corruption. Corruption as an influence has made its way into the recently published Joint Doctrine Publication 05 Shaping a Stable World: the Military Contribution and into the the British Army's Tactical Doctrine on Stability Tactics it has not yet been recognised as a mainstreamed influence on mission success. Whilst there are pockets of recognition the subject has yet to be a central tenet of the Readiness Training spectrum or major career courses such as the Intermediate and Advanced Command and Staff Courses. NATO is making efforts under the authority of the NATO BI Action Plan developed from NATO’s BI Policy through such mechanisms as the inclusion of BI in the SACEUR’s Annual Guidance on Education, Training, Exercises and Evaluation (SAGE).

The need to take account of corruption applies equally to the sort of expeditionary interventions that were characterised in Iraq and Afghanistan (but probably less likely to occur by design in the near future) and to the upstream capacity building envisioned in the concepts of persistent competition amongst states. Both scenarios hold significant risks of corruption even if the apparent scale seems to differ the long term implications in both are considerable. To borrow the medical ethics dictum any mission needs to be cognisant of the idea of Primum non nocere or ‘first, do no harm’ to yourself or security by an ill- conceived disregard of corruption that fuels an adversaries narrative, especially if our actions reinforce factions who are toxic in the long term. This may be in a full blown stability operation or low level capacity building. To build resilience and raise understanding of these risks and their effects is done by mainstreaming corruption awareness in doctrine, education and training across all the staff functions. Corruption is not just a Civil Affairs or Finance issue; it affects every aspect of an operation from intelligence to logistics


The effect of corruption on national security has for too long assumed a low priority with the focus tending to be on so called ‘developing countries’. A great deal of current thinking suggests the threat from corruption is something that exists in developing countries and that it needs to be tackled for almost altruistic reasons such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16. However in national security terms the threat from corruption is all pervasive and this needs to be recognised especially as evidence mounts of the weaponsation of the phenomenon in non-linear warfare waged by other states or criminal insurgencies. ‘Dirty Entanglements’ and ‘weaponisation of chaos’ are not abstract concepts that occur in places ‘far away of which we know little’. It is just as likely to occur as a threat from the Balkans as from Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Whether it is the growth of Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs) like ISIS or the organised crime cartels that flourish in the Favelas the threat to the UK is direct and clear. Corruption needs to be tackled not because we are good members of the international community but because it is central to our security. Stability overseas is an issue not just in developing countries but everywhere and it is in the UK’s national interest to step up its efforts in this area as recognised in the UK Anti Corruption Strategy 2017-2022. Key thoughts:

· Corruption and international security are inextricably linked.

· Corruption not only undermines defence and security institutions ability to provide security but actively fuels the growth of insecurity by fuelling injustice that can be exploited by those who seek insecurity for political or economic ends.

· Corruption is not a passive phenomenon that can be ‘boxed in’ by legislation and law enforcement it is an active and evolving force that requires agile and flexible capabilities to meet it. It is a virus not a tumour and needs to be tackled in the same complex way.

· More regulation is rarely the way to increase control of corruption and context is important in developing any strategy.

· The threat from corruption is not diminishing and efforts need to be stepped up to tackle it

About the Author

Dave Allen is currently serving as the Stability Operations Doctrine focus in the UK Land Warfare Centre and was the Military Adviser to the Building Integrity UK programme from 2015-2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the British Army or UK Government.

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