The war in Afghanistan was not a failure. It was a huge success – for those who made a fortune out of it.
Take the case of Hikmatullah Shadman, who was only a teenager when US special forces arrived in Kandahar in the aftermath of September 11. officer, according to a profile of him in The New Yorker. In his late twenties, he owned a trucking company that supplied US military bases, earning him over $ 160 million.
If a small fry like Shadman could get so rich from the war on terror, imagine how much Gul Agha Sherzai, a great warlord turned governor, has amassed since he helped the CIA drive the Taliban out of the country. city. His large extended family provided everything from gravel to furniture at the Kandahar military base. His brother controlled the airport. No one knows how much he’s worth, but it’s clearly hundreds of millions – enough for him to talk about a $ 40,000 shopping spree in Germany as if he were spending change.
Look under the “good war” hood, and this is what you see. Afghanistan was meant to be an honorable war to neutralize terrorists and save the daughters of the Taliban. It was supposed to be a war we could have won without the distraction of Iraq and the desperate corruption of the Afghan government. But let’s be realistic. Corruption was not a design flaw during the war. It was a design feature. We did not overthrow the Taliban. We paid the warlords bags of money to do it.
As the nation-building project began, these same warlords were transformed into governors, generals, and deputies, and cash payments continued to flow in.
“Westerners have often scratched their heads at the continuing lack of capacity in Afghan government institutions,” Sarah Chayes, former special assistant to the US military leaders in Kandahar, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “But the sophisticated networks controlling these institutions never intended to rule. Their goal was personal enrichment. And at this task they have had spectacular success.
Instead of a nation, what we’ve really built is over 500 military bases – and the personal fortunes of the people who provided them. It had always been the case. In April 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dictated a top secret note ordering assistants to come up with “a plan on how we’re going to deal with each of these warlords – who’s going to get money from whom , on what basis, to exchange for what, what is the counterpart, etc. According to the Washington Post.
The war proved to be extremely lucrative for many Americans and Europeans as well. A 2008 study estimated that about 40 percent of the money allocated to Afghanistan actually returned to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries. Only about 12% of US reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021 actually went to the Afghan government. Much of the rest went to companies like Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey-based construction company that won a $ 1.4 billion contract to build schools, clinics and roads. Even after being caught bribing officials and systematically overcharging taxpayers, contracts kept coming in.
“It is one of my scarecrows that Afghan corruption is so often cited as an explanation (as well as an excuse) for Western failure in Afghanistan,” Jonathan Goodhand, professor of conflict and development studies, wrote to me. at SOAS University in London. E-mail. The Americans “point the finger at the Afghans, while ignoring their role both to feed and to benefit from the sponsorship pump”.
Who won the war on terrorism? According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit that tracked spending in a series of reports called Windfalls of War, from U.S. defense contractors, many of whom were politically linked companies that had donated to the campaign. presidential election of George W. Bush. A company hired to help advise Iraqi ministries had only one employee – the husband of an Assistant Under Secretary of Defense.
For George W. Bush and his friends, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought a lot. President Bush was fortunate enough to be tough on television. He became a War President, which helped him get re-elected. By the time people realized that the war in Iraq was fought under false pretenses and that the war in Afghanistan had no honorable exit plan, it was too late.
What emerges from the war in Afghanistan is the way it become the Afghan economy. At least Iraq had oil. In Afghanistan, the war has eclipsed all other economic activities except the opium trade.
In two decades, the U.S. government has spent $ 145 billion on reconstruction and aid, and an additional $ 837 billion on war, in a country where the GDP hovered between $ 4 billion and $ 20 billion a year.
Economic growth has increased and decreased with the number of foreign troops in the country. It soared during President Barack Obama’s rise to power in 2009 only to collapse with the withdrawal two years later.
Imagine what ordinary Afghans could have done if they could have used this money for long-term projects planned and executed at their own pace. But alas, policymakers in Washington rushed to get money out, as money spent was one of the few measurable indicators of success.
The money was intended to buy securities, bridges and power stations to win “hearts and minds”. But the surreal sums of cash instead poisoned the country, embittered those who did not have access to it and sparked rivalries between those who did.
“The money spent was far more than Afghanistan could absorb,” concluded the special inspector general of Afghanistan’s final report. “The basic assumption was that the corruption had been created by individual Afghans and that donor interventions were the solution. It would take years for the United States to realize that it was fueling corruption with its overspending and lack of control. “
The result was a fantastic economy that functioned more like a casino or a Ponzi scheme than a country. Why build a factory or plant crops when you can get fabulously rich selling whatever Americans want to buy? Why fight the Taliban when you could just pay them not to attack?
Money fueled the revolving door of war, enriching the very militants it was supposed to fight, whose attacks then justified a new round of spending.
An accountant who was part of a military task force that analyzed $ 106 billion in Pentagon contracts estimated that 40% of the money ended up in the pockets of “insurgents, criminal groups or corrupt Afghan officials, ”according to the Washington Post.
Sociologists have a name for the countries that depend so much on unearned income from outside: the “rentier states”. It is generally used for oil producing countries, but Afghanistan is now emerging as an extreme example.
A report by Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described how Afghanistan’s rentier economy has undermined efforts to build democracy. Since the money came from foreigners instead of taxes, the rulers were sensitive to donors rather than their own citizens.
I knew the war in Afghanistan had derailed the day I had lunch in Kabul with a European consultant who was paid dearly to write reports on Afghan corruption. He had just arrived, but he already had a lot of ideas on what to do, including ridding the Afghan civil service of pay scales based on seniority. I suspect he would never have been able to form an idea like this in his own country. But in Kabul, he had a chance to get his ideas adopted. For him, Afghanistan was not a failure, but a place to shine.
None of this is to say that the Afghan people do not deserve to be supported, even now. They do. But a lot more can be done by spending a lot less in a more thoughtful way.
What does the Taliban takeover say about the war? It proves that you cannot buy an army. You can only rent one for a period of time. With the silver tap off, how many stayed around to defend our vision for Afghanistan? Not Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord turned governor. He would have pledged allegiance to the Taliban.