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 ofAfghanistan, 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 Afghans. 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,” oneU.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. AU.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.
“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 in 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. LikeHastings, Wissing explores the fortunes of COIN, the counter insurgency 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 Americans in a “long, exhausting and continuous battle.” In 2004, the same year Gregg wanted to cut the butter, bin Laden said: “All that we have mentioned has made it easy to provoke and bait this administration. All we have to do is send two [mujahedeen] to … raise a cloth on which is written al-Qaida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without achieving for it anything of note. … So we are continuing this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”
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.