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“A Vast Criminal Racket”: Sebastian Junger on How the U.S. Corrupted Afghanistan

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Sebastian Junger writes in Vanity Fair:

The Taliban delegation to Jalalabad in the summer of 1996 was a dour bunch of old men who took their meals together at a long table in the dining room of the Spinghar hotel. They were there to negotiate the surrender of Jalalabad and I was there to document the last stand of the Afghan government, such as it was, so there were some hard stares across the breakfast buffet. Then we would all go out and face the jet engine heat of the day.

A week later I was driving through Kabul when a Taliban gunner opened up on us with a machine gun. (The Taliban already harbored Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures in Afghanistan, but the Islamic State was not yet in existence.) My driver cranked a U-turn and roared back up the ruined boulevard. “We hate those people,” he said, “but they promise to clean up corruption, and so we will let them into our country.” The Taliban claimed Kabul weeks after I got out, hanging President Najibullah from a streetlight for corruption and completing their three-year campaign to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan. From there, I was told by a captured Taliban fighter, they planned to wage jihad across Southeast Asia and eventually the world.

The one part of the country that never fell to the Taliban, however, was the rugged northeastern quadrant controlled by ethnic Tajiks under the command of legendary guerilla fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. In the fall of 2000, four years into the Taliban reign, I made my way from Tajikistan into the “free” areas of Badakhshan Province, where I spent two months alongside Massoud and his commanders. I watched Massoud play a brilliant and desperate chess game against the vastly superior Taliban forces, holding ground and even liberating new areas. Massoud warned me that Pakistan—supposedly a U.S. ally—was directly supporting the Taliban, and that al-Qaida was planning a huge attack on the West in the coming year.

Massoud repeated those warnings to the French Congress in Paris the following April, but no one took it seriously. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaida suicide bombers, and two days later, hijacked airplanes flew into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. A fourth plane was supposed to take out the Capitol building in Washington and effectively decapitate the U.S. government, but passengers bravely forced it down into a field in Pennsylvania. One month later I was back in Afghanistan, and my country was at war.

After weeks of strangely lackadaisical bombing by American planes, Massoud’s Northern Alliance surged across the Shomali Plain toward Kabul. Tanks and pickup trucks and bicycles and men on foot converged on the two main roads leading into the city and streamed southwards, fighting as they went. On November 13 we walked into the city at dawn past a clutch of dead Taliban fighters who lay vacant and twisted in a pile by the side of the road, executed hours earlier. The citizens of Kabul were dancing in the streets and flying kites and carrying radios that blared Indian pop music. A young boy sailed by on a bike playing harmonica, and a man came up and hugged me when he found out I was American. I had always wanted to see a city liberated, and my wish had finally been fulfilled. Not only that, but it was my own country that had done the liberating; I felt a warm infusion of national pride.

Many Americans are now fond of saying, knowingly, that the war was unwinnable because it’s Afghanistan—graveyard of empires, a rugged land filled with proud people who are happy to fight to the death. But that kind of breezy dismissal just allows us to avoid the embarrassing conversation about what actually went wrong. America had overwhelming military superiority, the approval of over 80% of Afghans polled in 2004, and the sympathy of the entire international community after the attacks of 9/11. The scale of those attacks also gave us the kind of legal, moral, and strategic justifications that were utterly lacking in Korea and Vietnam. If there could be a sure thing in warfare, this was it—and we blew it.

To be clear, American efforts in Afghanistan can’t really be compared to the vast imperialist undertakings of the British and the Soviets; if anything, we weren’t imperialist enough. Taliban resistance collapsed almost immediately in 2001, but instead of following through with a massive infusion of troops and relief, the Bush administration moved on to a completely unnecessary war in Iraq. Afghanistan was initially allotted only about 10,000 American troops—one quarter the size of the New York City police force—and was all but abandoned by the State Department. Iraq was the place to be for ambitious young Americans in the Bush administration; Afghanistan was a backwater.

Afghans looked on in amazement: You lost almost 3,000 civilians to al-Qaida, and this is all you got? For Afghans debating whether to collaborate with American forces, this was not looking like a good bet. “We know what happened to the Kurds after the first Gulf War,” one Afghan told a friend of mine. “President Bush abandoned them after the war, and they were massacred by Saddam Hussein.” Now another member of the Bush dynasty—George W.—was offering a similar deal. Incredibly, many Afghans accepted.

Even with that small level of support, the Afghan endeavor might have worked had the Bush administration—and then the Obama administration—tackled the one thing that Afghans have always demanded, and that all people deserve: an honest and transparent government. Instead, we essentially stood up a huge criminal cartel that posed as a government. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, for example, was the recipient of $23 million in “loans” from the national bank that everyone knew he would never have to pay back. The son of the former Speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, was given millions of dollars in contracts to supply fuel and security to U.S. military bases. And a food chain of corrupt officials continued to impose a vast and humiliating extortion system that squeezed money from ordinary Afghans every time they went through a checkpoint, filed paperwork, or even applied for a job. Military commanders even dunned money from their own soldiers’ paychecks for the “privilege” of wearing the country’s uniform.

There was no reason for Afghan soldiers to fight and die for such an enterprise, and by 2005—the next time I was back in-country—the Taliban had regained control of entire districts and were largely dictating the nature of the war. Our high-tech military could win every battle but was useless against an enemy that moved with ease through a civilian population that feared and even hated them. “The U.S. is effectively trying to

Continue reading.  There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Sarah [Chayes] spent almost a decade in Kandahar, learning Pashto and embedding herself so deeply in Kandahari society that the U.S. military had the good sense to hire her as a civilian adviser. She wound up working for three top ISAF commanders and finally inside the Pentagon, reporting directly to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Sarah, some field commanders knew how important anti-corruption measures could be, because they had watched Taliban-controlled areas open up to them when corrupt local officials were deprived of unregulated development cash. Nevertheless, in 2011, the Obama administration ignored Admiral Mullen and other senior commanders and decided that U.S. policy would not challenge corrupt practices in Afghanistan.

fter that, it was game on for a cash mill that saw a total of $2 trillion spent by America in Afghanistan. Civilian officials from agencies like USAID, the State Department, and Congress continued to launch obscenely inflated development projects that could turn Afghan governors into millionaires overnight. Military contractors continued to unwittingly pay Taliban commanders to refrain from attacking supply convoys. And Afghan officials brazenly stole the paychecks, ammunition, and even food of Afghan soldiers fighting on the front line. On paper the U.S. paid for a 300,000-man Afghan army, but the actual number was much smaller—and the difference, of course, was pocketed by Afghan officials. American policies were so contradictory, in fact, that many ordinary Afghans concluded that the U.S. was secretly allied with the Taliban and just “pretending” to be at war.

Because I had spent a lot of time with U.S. troops in the infamous Korengal Valley, Senator John Kerry invited me to meet with him in late 2010. Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and said that he wanted to hear my thoughts on how the war was going. We met in Kerry’s office after he had gotten off an overnight flight, and his eyes were heavy with sleep. “The war is not winnable unless we deal with corruption,” I recall telling him, doing my best to channel Sarah’s insights. His response was that the U.S. simply didn’t have enough leverage to press the issue. If we cut off the money, I remember him saying, the government would simply revolt.

“Then tell them we’ll leave,” I said. “If the Taliban take Kabul, every minister is dead, and they all know that.”

There is a particular look that officials get when they know you are right, but their hands are tied, and Kerry had that look now. He thanked me for my insights, and I never heard from him again.

When the Taliban finally seized . . .

It may well be that the US was so accepting of corruption in Afghanistan because the US itself has become extremely corrupt and thus sees no real objection to corruption. See the next post for an example.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 1:01 pm

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