The U.S. has been financing both sides of the war in Afghanistan since 2001 as a startling percentage of foreign aid continues to flood Taliban coffers on a daily basis, according to Douglas A. Wissing in his new book, Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.
Not only does Wissing paint a disturbing portrait of how the U.S. government has mismanaged billions in development aid, he provides a painfully realistic view of the war that contrasts sharply with the rosy outlook spun by the White House. Impeccably researched, based on riveting frontline interviews with hundreds of troops, aid workers, contractors and government officials — Funding the Enemy is a scathing indictment of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and its reliance on a recycled Vietnam-era strategy of commingling military and development objectives.
Some experts have estimated that close to $1 billion a year of foreign assistance has fallen into the hands of the enemy as a result of poorly-run counterinsurgency programs, ill-devised USAID projects and countless logistics and security extortion rings. In addition, a free-market ideologue outsourcing craze has led to a wholesale lack of oversight while the prioritization of private greed over the public good has fostered unprecedented levels of corruption.
Afghanistan is a case study in paradox, of how development aid can actually destabilize a war-torn country. But development does not reduce violence in a war zone when a large portion of it goes to the enemy — which makes sense. It also makes for an absurd cycle which has served to prolong the conflict to the sole benefit of war profiteers, warlords and corrupt Afghan officials.
Siphoning of international largesse by the Taliban has burgeoned into an industry unto itself. In fact, it is so widespread the Taliban opened its own shadow office in Kabul where U.S.-funded development, security and logistics contractors line up to pay the Taliban a cut of each deal — usually about 20% of the contract’s value. One U.S. official told Wissing: “I have yet to find a local security firm not in bed with the Taliban.”
Road construction has been seen as a panacea to Afghanistan’s woes by many U.S. leaders. In 2008 then Senator Joe Biden said: “How do you spell hope in Pashto and Dari? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.” But the truth has been quite the opposite considering construction contracts themselves have been a source of Taliban funding. A political analyst told Wissing that if the insurgents don’t get their share, nothing gets built. Wissing captures the absurdity of the situation succinctly: “Development wasn’t countering the insurgency; it was paying for it.”
At the heart of the crisis lies the U.S. attempt to implement a civilian-military hybrid “Marshall Plan” — a militarization of aid strategy ripped from the Vietnam playbook reminted in Afghanistan as “COIN.” The U.S. was already mistrusted for installing the corrupt Hamid Karzai as President and empowering a host of warlords to pacify the country. Mixing short-term military gains with long-term development goals exacerbated the situation, alienated Afghans and bolstered the insurgency.
Just as strategic hamlets failed in Indochina, so too did programs aimed at “winning hearts and minds” in Afghanistan. In both cases the strategy hinged on “binding a hostile local population to the central government” — a near impossible mission given that most Afghans despise the ruling Karzai kleptocracy as much as they do the Taliban.
Then again, according to former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, the two are one in the same. A U.S.-led anti-corruption task force discovered countless shadowy relationships that exist between the Taliban and the Karzai cartel. Galbraith told Wissing: “I described this as a Mafia state. We see the Afghan state on one side, and the Taliban on the other. But the reality is they work together.”
A case in point is Watan Risk Management, a security firm owned by two Karzai relatives, according to the New York Times. Watan partnered with the Taliban to institute a lucrative protection racket. Through its political connections Watan won loads of profitable NATO military security contracts which primarily consisted of Watan “buying off the Taliban.” A congressional report concluded that the insurgents made “millions of dollars per week” off the contracts, rivaling opium as a source of Taliban finance.
Funding the Enemy made me wonder if the U.S. has done anything right in Afghanistan. So I asked Mr. Wissing himself, who responded by pointing out Afghanistan’s remarkable rise from being the world’s forty-second most corrupt country on earth in 2005 to its current number two placing in Transparency International’s corruption index. Wissing elaborated:
“With its ravenous, predatory government feeding on US-abetted opium, aid, and corruption, Afghanistan had rocketed up the corruption charts — with a bullet, as the DJs like to say. More than a decade after the US invaded, Afghanistan remains among the most corrupt countries on the planet.”
Not exactly the type of accomplishment I had in mind.
This post has been updated from a previous version.