March 2, 2015
How to Build a Quagmire
Posted on Jun 21, 2012
Nor did the U.S. presence halt the Afghan drug trade. Our allies included traffickers who opposed Taliban efforts to reduce poppy production. When asked about those alliances, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld replied, “We don’t do drugs.” It was a neat line, but U.S. policies were effectively nurturing a narco state. By 2007, that unpleasant fact could no longer be ignored, and the Bush administration allocated $270 million to Helmand Province—which accounts for half of the nation’s narcotics production—hoping to provide an incentive to farmers to stop growing poppies. The initiative, Wissing notes, was “totally counterproductive.” The Taliban took over governance in major parts of the region, and poppy production continued. “Instead of a cheap, expeditious remedy,” Wissing concludes, “the American government’s confused Afghan drug trade policy contributed to the intertwined, codependent culture of corruption, aid and militarism that fueled the enduring war.”
Massive infrastructure expenditures likewise produced perverse results. “Afghan road construction became the great American boondoggle,” Wissing maintains, “and also an important source of financing for the Taliban.” He cites one high-profile project that began with a $665 million contract to produce 1,500 kilometers of roadway. International firms proposed to build the roads for $250,000 per kilometer, but Louis Berger Group got the nod at $700,000 per kilometer. Berger quickly subcontracted the project to Indian and Turkish firms, which built roads inferior to those laid by the Taliban. The insurgents promptly began shaking down travelers at new checkpoints and squeezing funds from Afghan officials and businessmen connected to the projects.
Despite the U.S. obsession with metrics, tracking our aid expenditures was beyond us. The military and the U.S. Agency for International Development used separate databases, and the latter organization had already become an ATM machine for contractors. In the 1990s, consultants recommended that USAID work be privatized; after the invasion, USAID programs expanded, but its hiring was so minimal that it outsourced even its oversight functions. As Sen. Patrick Leahy told an agency representative, “We routinely hear that … USAID has become a check-writing agency for big Washington contractors and NGOs … because you don’t have the staff to manage a larger number of smaller contracts and grants.” By 2010, there were 104,000 private contractors in Afghanistan—more civilians than soldiers. Note to war profiteers: Mission accomplished!
The price tag for all this? A Brown University study estimated that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq will cost U.S. taxpayers $4 trillion. As our government cut infrastructure, education and human services here at home, it was paying for useless wells, substandard roads and empty schools in Afghanistan. One National Guardsman asked Wissing, “How can we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions—here, when we can’t afford books for our own children?” Wissing adds that the $120 billion appropriated for Afghanistan last year would pay for 1.9 million elementary school teachers, 16 million Head Start slots or 15.5 million university scholarships. And that’s just the treasure. The human costs include 225,000 lives, countless shattered communities and families, and future fallout from American war crimes (including torture) committed in pursuit of our enemies.
Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban
Douglas A. Wissing
Prometheus Books, 396 pages
Wissing’s unsparing account of waste, fraud and industrious self-delusion belongs on a short shelf of important books chronicling American misadventures since Vietnam. So far Wissing has escaped the criticism directed at Michael Hastings, whose Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal led to that officer’s removal in Afghanistan. Like Hastings, Wissing explores the fortunes of COIN, the counterinsurgency strategy administered by McChrystal and others. But Wissing is less interested in personalities and military culture than in the underlying folly of what both authors regard as an unwinnable war—or rather, an occupation that cannot be won or lost but certainly can be mismanaged and protracted beyond all reason.
Once upon a time, perhaps, the United States could afford to borrow and spend $4 trillion to thwart a relatively small network of terrorists. Al-Qaida’s strategy, according to Osama bin Laden, was to engage America in a “long, exhausting and continuous battle.” In 2004, the same year Gregg wanted to cut the butter, bin Laden said:
For our own dubious reasons, we did our part to fulfill bin Laden’s destructive prophecy. That decision haunts Wissing’s book and continues to weaken our republic.
Peter Richardson is the author of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” (2009) and “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams” (2005).
Editor’s note: Peter Richardson, while he was an editorial director at PoliPointPress, signed “Funding the Enemy” by Douglas Wissing, but the company folded before the book was released. Richardson had never read the manuscript and has never met Wissing.
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