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How to Build a Quagmire

Posted on Jun 21, 2012

By Peter Richardson

“Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban”
A book by Douglas A. Wissing

Three years into the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Sen. Judd Gregg offered an unusual pronouncement on that year’s congressional budget negotiations. “This cannot afford to be a guns and butter term,” he told The Wall Street Journal, invoking the traditional trade-off between military and domestic spending priorities. “You’ve got to cut the butter.”

If Gregg’s prescription sounded harsh, the reality was even more dispiriting. In addition to its huge outlays on guns, the U.S. government was coating the entire country of Afghanistan in butter. For a decade now, we’ve spent $120 billion annually to occupy a nation whose GDP was less than one-tenth of that figure. Much of the funding has supported the military, of course, but a great deal of it was allocated for roads, schools, dams and hospitals—the very projects Gregg wished to cut here. A substantial fraction of that money never made it to Afghanistan as such. Large firms won fat contracts and subcontracted them to smaller firms, which subcontracted them to lesser companies in a cascade of skim. What dollars did arrive in Afghanistan funded low-quality construction and no maintenance. The occupation’s other big winners were Afghan kleptocrats, warlords and drug barons, who were busily presiding over a resurgent opium trade.

“It’s the perfect war,” one U.S. intelligence officer told author Douglas A. Wissing. “Everyone is making money.”

That irony wasn’t lost on our true enemy. As early as 2002, al-Qaida spokesman Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi made a similar point. “Anyone who follows the news from Afghanistan will see how the different factions are playing with the Americans,” he noted. Those groups clearly intended “to prolong the flow of dollars as long as possible and are trying to strengthen their own interests without cooperating seriously in the American crusade.” His thumbnail description fits the facts surprisingly well.

This floridly dysfunctional system is the subject of Wissing’s remarkable book, “Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.” Drawing on a wide range of sources and adding his own firsthand reporting, Wissing describes how ousting the Taliban led to one of the most protracted and fruitless efforts in U.S. foreign policy history. If you’re wondering how $31 billion of U.S. taxpayer money could be lost to fraud and waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, this book is for you.

We haven’t aided the Afghan economy; we are the economy. Our very presence there has disfigured normal commerce and created perverse incentives. As Wissing notes, senior Afghan officials earn $150 a month while a nongovernmental organization driver earns $1,000. How long before those officials supplement their incomes with gifts (bakhsheesh) or become drivers? The full absurdity of the arrangement was revealed in miniature when Afghan farmers refused to clear their own canals unless we paid them.

Profiteering and corruption are common during wartime, but the situation in Afghanistan is appalling even by those standards. Outrageously, the Taliban itself has been a major beneficiary of our boodle. The shadow government was the only enemy in sight after al- Qaida evacuated in December 2001. A U.S. military office noted that 10 to 20 percent of funds from all international contracts in Afghanistan wound up with the Taliban. The Taliban even skims U.S. payments to families of Afghan civilians killed accidentally.

book cover


Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban


Douglas A. Wissing


Prometheus Books, 396 pages


Buy the book

“Each of the projects, you have to pay the Taliban,” a political analyst told Wissing. “If you don’t pay them, you can’t do anything.” In 2009, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that pattern: “There’s a lot of evidence that, in addition to funding from the Gulf and illegal narcotics trade, that siphoning off contractual money from the international community … is a major source of funding for the Taliban.” The government in exile was nothing if not resilient. “We know they are raising substantial sums of money; they can finance their operations,” a U.S. embassy official told Wissing. “If you take away the Gulf money, they can make it up. If you take away the narco money, they can make it up. It’s like punching jello.”

Even before we arrived, Afghanistan was one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, but the occupation intensified the graft. One study revealed that more than half of Afghan households had paid bribes to public officials in the previous six months, and that the average resident paid more than $100 a year in such bribes. Not a large figure, perhaps, but 70 percent of Afghan families live on $1 a day. The CIA-funded intelligence service in Afghanistan was also doing brisk business using a “catch and release” strategy with Taliban members. A Canadian law professor called Afghan intelligence officers “stunningly corrupt. They simply let the high-value Taliban walk—then torture the low-level Taliban to extort money from the families.” 

Before 9/11, the Pentagon’s main problem with Afghanistan was its lack of targets. “When we looked at Afghanistan before,” one Clinton official noted, “the sense was we were going to bomb them up to the Stone Age.” Then came the invasion, which cost only $3.8 billion, and the snafu at Tora Bora, where Afghan warlords accepted $70 million to guard exit routes but still let al-Qaida slip across the border into Pakistan. By May 2002, we had spent $17 billion. But the invasion and occupation of Iraq, another freely chosen disaster, shifted American attention elsewhere and enabled the hustle in Afghanistan.

Our strategy hinged on civilian-military units called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were designed to maximize development, diplomacy and defense. It was the sort of nation building that George W. Bush had once scorned, and the results were poor. Hoping to help Afghan farmers, PRTs drilled countless wells, which created local squabbles and lowered water tables. “The only ones who benefit are the contractors who drill the wells,” one civilian official told Wissing. “They get paid lord knows how much to drill those things.” Concluded another observer, “We were worsening conflicts instead of mitigating them.”

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