Nation-gilding

The Afghan government was undone by its own corruption

As with Vietnam, an American client state was crippled by graft

IT LOOKED LIKE the fall of Saigon in 1975 on fast-forward: an American-backed army melting away, enemy fighters strolling into the presidential palace, desperate crowds mobbing the airport. But the similarities between Afghanistan and South Vietnam were not only superficial. Both states, built to please their American sponsors, had been hollowed out by one of the oldest diseases of governance: corruption.

In Afghanistan, “from your birth certificate to your death certificate and whatever comes in between, somehow you have to bribe,” says Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat. Officials and police routinely demand baksheesh (a “tip”). As the Taliban advanced, the pay-off required for a passport rose to thousands of dollars.

Worse, a government job is itself a valuable commodity. As Sarah Chayes, an expert on corruption, discovered while running an NGO in Afghanistan, officials often buy their posts…