Four years ago, I spent Christmas in Afghanistan with the Massachusetts National Guard. They lived behind a glistening palisade of razor wire on the outskirts of Kabul, but none of the soldiers I spoke to had ever visited the city. As much as they wanted to see combat, the closest most got was patrolling the perimeter of the base, bristling with guns and bulletproof armor. Even a nearby car bomb did not draw them out. Afghan forces had it covered.
As US troops prepare to leave at the end of this year, I suspect the thing Afghans will miss the most won’t be the departing soldiers but all their departing money.
I’m not minimizing the incredible sacrifice that American troops have made, or the very real logistical support that they continue to provide the Afghan military. But most Afghans hardly got a fleeting glimpse of the US army. Yet, for more than a decade, they have built their economy around the war. From the little boy who sells gum outside the military base to the private militia that protects trucks bringing fuel for American humvees, the certainty of war has brought a kind of economic stability.
Fortunes have been made selling blast-proof cement blocks, electricity, and furniture to foreign soldiers. Hotels, restaurants, and private security services have sprung up to serve international guests. Roads, airports, and communication lines have been built and maintained because of the needs of American soldiers. Kids aspire to be military translators, the one good job held by someone they know. Some military bases stand on land that belongs to somebody important who has been receiving a huge check every month. Is it any wonder that some people want the war to go on?
The US government has spent more than $640 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, the vast majority on security, not counting the “black budget” of cash handed out by the CIA. If even a small fraction of that money was spent inside the country, it dwarfs most forms of foreign investment. Consider that Afghanistan’s annual GDP is $20 billion. The tax and customs revenue collected by the Afghan government is just $2 billion.
Last week, the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, told an audience at the Atlantic Council that we spent more money than the country could absorb.
“We need to recognize that too much money, spent too quickly, with too few safeguards, is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
The money bloated the bank accounts of certain families who were allied with the United States, but it alienated Afghans who’d been left out.
I’ve been told that the lion’s share of a billion dollars worth of US military contracts issued from the Kandahar Air Base went to just two extended families: relatives of President Hamid Karzai and of Gul Agha Sherzai, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
Corruption in Afghanistan is now considered as great a threat to the country as the Taliban. But, as the US military is starting to acknowledge, it was been baked into the system from the start.
We toppled the Taliban in 2001, not with massive American firepower, but with proxy warriors — local warlords — who received cash and weapons in return. We rounded up Arab fighters from Al Qaeda by putting huge bounties on their heads. We didn’t conquer Kandahar Air Field on our own. Sherzai’s brother did. He subsequently became commander of the Afghan Air Wing, and master of many military contracts. It seemed a good idea at the time. But as the years went by, those militia leaders we worked with kept expecting more money, more favors, more sweetheart deals. Some got themselves elected to parliament. Even Karzai himself is reported to have accepted suitcases full of cash from the CIA in addition to his demands for US funding for his army. Is it any wonder that the country has turned into a place where loyalty is sold to the highest bidder?
All this money isn’t healthy for Afghanistan, but neither is simply turning off the tap. That could lead to economic collapse. For Afghanistan to have any hope of surviving the withdrawal of our money, we have to draw down carefully, strategically, just like we will with US troops. With $20 billion in reconstruction funding still in the pipeline, there’s still a chance to get it right.