American taxpayers are encountering a drumbeat of bad news from Afghanistan: Insurgents are launching coordinated complex attacks and implanting record numbers of IEDs. Strained by more than a decade of war, US troops, are implicated in Koran-burning, desecration and renegade killings.
Today the news broke that United States officials, in a futile hope of quelling violence, have been party to a pernicious "catch-and-release" system that facilitated the secret release of high-level insurgent detainees, who are then free to strike at American forces again.
As American taxpayers try to process these indicators of a failing war, do they also know that their taxes are helping to bankroll the Taliban?
When I was embedded with American troops in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, soldiers began telling me that the U.S. government wastes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars each year on scandalously mismanaged aid and logistics contracts connected to the war. The soldiers told me there was a toxic system that links distracted American officials, private U.S. corporations, powerful Afghan insiders-and the Taliban. One way or another, everyone was in on the take.
We'd be convoying in Taliban country in giant armored vehicles, dodging IEDs and keeping watch for ambushes, and the soldiers would be cynically telling me, "We're funding both sides of this war." Describing this malign nexus of American careerists, Afghan kleptocrats and wily insurgents as akin to the Mafia, the infantry grunts would spit their Skol in empty water bottles and ruefully say, "We're funding our own enemy."
At first it seemed preposterous, but as I researched my book, "Funding the Enemy," I realized the soldiers were right.
The system is so routine, there are Taliban business offices in Kabul and Kandahar, where contractors take their U.S.-funded contracts to negotiate percentages with jihadist engineers.
Security firms commonly contract with Afghan insurgents to protect U.S.-funded development projects. The notoriously wasteful 64-mile-long Khost-Gardez road project is expected to cost taxpayers $176 million. Over $43 million went to a security firm, which then hired an insurgent leader who was on the U.S. JPEL "kill or capture" list. They paid the jihadi $160,000 a month to provide security against himself.
The Taliban skims of U.S. taxpayer money are pervasive; ubiquitous. A U.S. contracting officer told me that construction contracts for the wildly expensive Afghan National Army bases in southern Afghanistan only go to contractors with Taliban connections.
The insurgents get their cut on even the smallest, seemingly benign U.S.-funded development projects, such as villager-built check dams. The insurgents shake down the Afghan contractor, and then get another cut when the U.S. development team pays the villagers. U.S. taxpayers even paid for this week's coordinated attacks by the Haqqani network insurgents, who pay for most of their operations with money skimmed from U.S. road contracts.
Though the poisonous system has negated U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, American officials are commonly sanguine about U.S. taxpayers' money financing the Taliban.
Military officers and development officials quickly learn the "acceptable" amount of corruption; throw up their hands when asked about the money getting into the Taliban's pockets. They don't know what to do. A staffer on the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee blithely told me, "Money's fungible-when you add it into a system, you are offering a resource to the enemy. I don't know how you get it back. That's the price we're willing to pay."
After reports began appearing in the press in late 2009, the U.S. government finally initiated efforts to staunch the flow of American money to the Taliban. Officials concocted an alphabet soup of multi-agency cells, units and programs, including the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC), Combined Joint Task Force 2010 (CJTF 2010), and USAID's Accountable Assistance for Afghanistan (A3) program that the agency finally established in early 2011. None has had an appreciable impact on the deeply rooted system of careerism, corruption and payoffs in Afghanistan.
As the U.S. stumbles through its eleventh year of war, American soldiers are getting increasingly cynical about our failed counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. They can see clearly that despite spending $2 billion a week, we aren't winning Afghan hearts and minds with our contradictory missions and self-defeating execution.
The jihadist insurgency has relentlessly grown through the decade of war. Last year, insurgents planted more than 16,000 IEDs in Afghanistan. We have shot ourselves in the foot, reloaded, and shot ourselves again.
Speaking on June 22, 2011, just seven weeks after Usama bin Laden's death, President Obama announced the withdrawal of thirty-three thousand U.S. troops. The number of U.S. government civilians assigned to Afghanistan started dropping. Afghanistan aid and development appropriations began drying up. Echoing a sentiment increasingly heard across the country, President Obama said in his address, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home."
But none of it is too soon for many. Afghans of all persuasions increasingly want foreign troops out of their country. U.S. polls show rapidly increasing support for accelerated troops withdrawal. Wearying of multiple deployments and flawed policies, many American soldiers are ready to come home. More than one soldier told me in Afghanistan, "The juice ain't worth the squeeze." American taxpayers surely agree with them.
Douglas Wissing is an independent journalist and author of "FUNDING THE ENEMY: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban" (Prometheus, 2012).