A reflection on the promise and limits of American power in Afghanistan.
Should, as the saying goes, the road to hell be paved with good intentions, a good stretch of it by now must surely run through Afghanistan, courtesy of the US tax-payer. It does provided war journalist Douglas A. Wissing is correct in what he contends in his absorbing, if at times repetitious, new book, Funding the Enemy: How the US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban. Built to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people after America invaded their country in the wake of 9/11, the stones used to pave this metaphorical road have been the many actual roads and other development projects that US tax dollars have been used for to undermine support for the Taliban. In reality, argues Wissing, a not inconsiderable proportion of these tax dollars has gone into financing and revitalize them.
While designed to drain away public support from the Taliban to the Karzai regime installed shortly after the invasion, all America’s counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan have achieved, contends Wissing, is to corrupt its previously self-sufficient populace at every level; alienate the majority of them from its ultra-corrupt government; and, through an extensive and at times highly organized system of kick-backs, finance the very forces against whom the counterinsurgency was undertaken. .
Wissing’s book contains no startlingly new revelations of deliberate or inadvertent US funding of the Taliban. Most of what it details has long been in the public domain. However, his book serves a valuable function in having assembled them in chronological order, and supplemented them with extracts from innumerable interviews that Wissing conducted with key players, as well as quotations from other journalists who have written about the subject.
Wissing traces the growth of American counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, from its heady beginnings immediately following the November 2001 invasion when a shortly to be called ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ arrived ‘with a heavy rucksack filled with $50,000 in cash… to perform missions with the local populations’. As the counterinsurgency evolved, the US tried to win the support of the Afghan people in ever more bureaucratized and indirect ways. All were equally in vain as Wissing explains with great verve how well-intentioned American tax-dollars helped to finance the proverbial road to hell that now runs in Afghanistan from its western border with Iran to its eastern borders with Pakistan.
Among the many ironies that surround America’s effort to purchase the support of the Afghan people, the futility of any attempt by it to quell insurgency in their country was foreseen decades before it began by the very person lately charged with its oversight. Since September 2011, David Petraeus has been director of the CIA. Before that, however, he was commander of the International Security Assistance Force and US Forces in Afghanistan. In his 1987 Princeton PhD dissertation, Petraeus wrote:
‘[W]hile observing the Soviet difficulties in Afghanistan with a certain sense of vindication, the US military are… reminded of the difficulties of defeating a determined guerrilla opponent who enjoys sanctuaries and is fighting in rugged terrain. After all, if a country with relatively few public opinion concerns or moral compunctions about its tactics cannot beat a bunch of ill-equipped Afghan tribesmen, what does that say about the ability of the United States — with its domestic constraints, statutory limitations, moral inhibition, and zealous investigative reporters — to carry out a successful action against a guerrilla force?’
Success in quelling an earlier insurgency in Iraq seems to have dispelled Petraeus’ earlier misgivings about America’s capacity to prevail in an insurgency under Afghanistan’s very different circumstances. As Wissing observes:
‘While COIN might have arguably worked in Iraq, at least temporarily, there weren’t great parallels in Afghanistan, where the insurgents were rural rather than urban, the tribal structure was less cohesive., and there was a lack of coherent political parties or a history of strong central government.’
For a long time after gaining office, President Barack Obama prevaricated over whether to accede to General Petraeus’ request for more troop deployments to Afghanistan. Finally, the president acquiesced, authorizing an additional 30,000 troops. At the same time, he enthusiastically threw the weight of his office behind Petraeus’ favored counterinsurgency strategy — with disastrous consequences, according to Wissing:
‘The increased aid and logistics money the Obama administration directed to Afghanistan accelerated the pandemic of corruption that began in the Bush era… And the Obama “Afghanicizing” strategy put the system on steroids, The US troop withdrawal deadline that accompanied the Obama troop surge then sent the whole organism into a feeding frenzy. Quite simply, WHAM didn’t work. Winning hearts and minds with development… was a stabilization failure. Indeed, the rising insurgent attacks tracked upward right along with the post-2009 increases in development funds and troops… In spite of ample evidence that US development and logistics money funded the enemy, most American officials avoided the subject.’
One senior American official not to avoid the subject was Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. In late 2009, so Wissing relates, she told the Senate Armed Service Committee: ‘There’s a lot of evidence that… siphoning off contractual money… is a major source of funding for the Taliban.’
What evidence is there US tax dollars have helped to fund the Taliban?
Towards the end of his book, Wissing provides the following convenient summary of the principal ways he had discovered US counterinsurgency spending had helped to fund the Taliban:
‘US taxpayer dollars supported the Taliban in the smallest things: villagers gave humanitarian aid blankets distributed by American troops to the mujahideen and sold USAID-funded wheat seed and fertilizer in the markets to underwrite the insurgency. Afghan National Police gave their weapons and ammunition to the jihadis. Supported by the CIA and US spec-ops, Afghan government satraps ran fiefdoms… with the Taliban. US-supported Afghan cell companies and banks paid off the insurgents. Aided by corrupt insiders, the insurgents grabbed giant takes from road, transport, construction and development projects.’
One of the more bizarre examples that Wissing cites of how US developmental aid inadvertently helped finance the Taliban is the repair work that America paid for and carried out on the Kajaki Dam and hydroelectric plant in Helmland Province:
‘The United States eventually spent over $100 million to repair and upgrade Kajaki… touting… [it] as a glittering centrepiece of American aid…But in 2010, researchers discovered that over half the electricity went to areas controlled by the Taliban, which sent out utility bills and dunned late payers with quick-snipping collection agents who summarily cut them off. Naturally, a good many of the insurgents’ customers utilised the electricity to irrigate their fields of opium poppy. Once an icon of US assistance… Kajaki now served as the symbol of America’s distracted aid to the enemy.’
As journalist Randolph T. Holnut observed (link no longer available) in May of this year in The American Reporter: ‘It’s as if Milo Minderbinder… is alive and well and running the Army Quartermaster Corps in Afghanistan.’ Wissing explains how this entire sorry situation was ever allowed to arise in terms of a number of separate contributory factors.
First, there was America’s presumption that the Afghans needed development. This presumption was misplaced, according to one former State Department foreign-service officer to whom Wissing spoke and who had made Afghan society his life’s study. He reportedly told Wissing: ‘it was laughable that the United States thought that the self-reliant Afghans needed development – or retired American CEOs to explain free-market enterprise to them.’ ‘The Afghans are the greatest free-market operators in the world,’ he is quoted as telling Wissing.
Second, counterinsurgency was perennially at odds with counterterrorism, ‘killing as many insurgents as [possible] … without regard to hearts and minds’. As Wissing explains:
‘Time and again, a Provincial Reconstruction Team’s patient efforts to win over a district with development projects would be negated by an air strike or night raid that left dead innocents in its wake.’
Third, counterinsurgency was always bedevilled by the absence of a suitable metric with to judge the effectiveness of specific measures. Wissing remarks:
‘There were virtually no metrics to measure the impact of the millions spent on stabilizing Afghanistan. The few measurements that were kept tracked inputs – number of trees planted, schools built, roads paved, wells dug, chickens distributed – but virtually no inquiry into the effect of aid on quelling the growing insurgency.’
The absence of a suitable metric for measuring the effectiveness of counterinsurgency measures mattered, as unsuitable measures could be highly counter-productive:
‘Poor construction and oversight of US-funded development projects is a major problem in Afghanistan — military commanders state that bad development is bad counterinsurgency, as it drives the population to the Taliban. The lack of US quality control yields a harvest of lousy projects. Badly graded roads paved over deficient roadbeds soon crumble. USAID-funded schools and hospitals built without sufficient rebar and supports are so unsafe they have to be demolished. And dams built with cheap concrete can collapse.’
Such poorly executed development played straight into the hands of the Taliban, as Wissing illustrates by means of the following example:
One medical clinic… built as a model for eighty-one clinics was so shoddily built and dangerous that the Afghan Health Ministry refused to approve it… Just a few years after completion, the clinic was falling apart ceilings collapsing; the flimsy chimney a fire hazard; the stench of raw sewage pervading the facility… [T]he Taliban used [it] endlessly for their public-relations machine.’
Fourth, much of what was expended on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan was siphoned off in a culture of corruption in which bribery and backhanders were part of a way of life. As Wissing puts it:
‘US-funded public-works contracts were gold mines: after a healthy dose of graft to the right government official, the contractor always seemed to have a connection to one of Afghanistan’s twenty powerful families. Once he [had] hacked off a chunk of the development money, the insider quickly subcontracted the project. Some projects were… subcontracted numerous times (with skims at each juncture), till some woebegone construction company would slap something together with a shadow of the money…
‘And the security contracts, which sometimes were as much as 40 percent of the total contract, were another great source of profits for the powerful families that controlled most of Afghanistan/s private security firms – profits they shared with compliant warlords, police, and insurgents.
Corruption was also rife throughout the Afghan criminal justice system and government, a fact that greatly assisted in the Taliban’s regrouping and regaining popularity after their initial rout by America:
‘Afghanistan’s justice system was run on graft – judges being among the most likely public officials to ask for a bribe…The executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime… stated: “At the moment, the Afghan people are under the impression that it is easier to buy a judge than hire a lawyer.”… [A] “catch-and-release” system [operated] for captured high-level Taliban leaders, whom Afghan officials released in exchange for payoffs… The system was so well organised that the Taliban eventually set up a standing “Freedom” committee to handle the bribery negotiations… Over the… years, Taliban and Afghan government insiders systematized the catch-and-release scam…’
Corruption extended throughout every area of Afghan society in a way that the Taliban were able to capitalize on through the alienation that it aroused in the Afghan people towards the authorities:
Corruption became a major part of the Afghan economy… [b]ribes… an inextricable part of daily life… There were shakedown “tolls” by the cops at the roadblocks. It took a hundred dollars in [bribes] to get a driver’s license; four hundred to get connected to Kabul’s electric grid; thousands to get a provincial business permit… The pervasive corruption undermined faith in the Karzai government, pushing Afghans to the insurgents for justice and order…
According to Wissing, it was more than just popularity that the Taliban gained out of the bribery and corruption rife throughout Afghanistan. They also became adept at milking the system. As Wissing explained:
‘Like their co-conspirators in the Afghan government, the insurgents soon learned how to score US taxpayer money… [As a] Taliban lieutenant explained [in 2003 to a Pakistani journalist]: “[The] US authorities… distribute dollars to the tribal chiefs, local administrators and other concerned people for welfare services… most goes into Taliban pockets to refuel the struggle…”… [A Ghazni Province elder explained why it did.] “American money is haram [unlawful in Islam]… We could not use it to improve our lives. So we decided to give it to the Taliban.”’
As another old saying runs, with friends like these who needs enemies?
Wissing sums up thus the overall situation in Afghanistan after a decade there of counterinsurgency:
‘Everyone was in on the take in on way or another – the Afghan insiders, the international consultants and technocrats, the politicians, the military, the Taliban… By April 2010… Karzai was threatening to join the insurgency if the United States and NATO continued to push him for reforms… But many people realized Karzai and his henchmen had already effectively joined the Taliban.’
As the futility of its counterinsurgency strategy became increasingly apparent to those who had previously participated in and supported it, the end of America’s involvement with Afghanistan finally came into sight. As Wissing put it:
‘The Obama administration had cast its lot with a risky and expensive counterinsurgency strategy that was financially unsustainable… As the skims and scams and corruption schemes continued, frustration grew among American soldiers… Through the summer of 2011, there was anti-Western rioting in cities across Afghanistan, reflecting increasing anger over civilian casualties and the predatory Afghan government… The stated US counterinsurgency mission, to bind the people of Afghanistan to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had failed. It was the death of COIN…
‘With the American economy still bumping along the bottom, the cost of the war was [also] getting greater scrutiny… Since 9/11, the United States had spent nearly one trillion of mostly borrowed dollars on the Afghanistan war… [a]t a time when the United States was slipping in global rankings in education, health, and other human services, and the nation’s infrastructure was alarmingly derelict…Within a month of Osama bin Laden’s death, American public opinion shifted dramatically…[F]or the first time a majority of Americans favoured bringing US troops home as soon as possible… Two months earlier, only 38 percent of Americans favored withdrawing the troops as soon as possible.’
What final lesson can and should be drawn from America’s (mis)adventure in Afghanistan will long remain fiercely contested by pundits and politicians. Some will argue it shows that, beyond taking reprisals against those immediately responsible for organizing the 9/11 attack on it, America should never have undertaken to become the world’s policeman, let alone its school-teacher or physician. Others will be more inclined to condemn America for having only settled for a proxy war in Afghanistan, having lacked the courage to confront its real enemy because it was still so heavily reliant on it for a natural resource for which as yet no adequate substitute has been found.
Either way one thing is for sure. America’s counterinsurgency effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people proved an abject failure. Joseph Heller must be laughing in his grave, or, as I suspect if he is doing anything, quietly weeping.