You’ve probably read a lot about Afghanistan in the past week, more perhaps than at any time in recent memory. There are any number of hot takes, articles, op-eds and analyses of the Taliban, the U.S. withdrawal and the geopolitical implications of the fall of Kabul. These are all very valuable topics that are worth discussing. But what is curiously missing from much of the conversation is how this failed war had been extensively outsourced to nontransparent and unaccountable actors.
A purported war for a democratic Afghanistan pursued in glaringly undemocratic ways.
It behooves America to consider how and why so much of such a vital conflict was assigned to private contractors—and whether that kind of approach was even partly to blame for the debacle that ensued. It might be. That is not even to broach the topic of whether so much of the world’s most powerful country’s foreign policy should be in the hands of corporations that do not answer to the people footing the bill, namely, the taxpayer. I would have expected more Americans to be outraged.
Perhaps, one can hope, that outrage will swell over time, as more Americans come to learn of what exactly transpired—and how much of their treasure was squandered. I must insist journalists do their part to follow the money. We cannot let this story slip from the headlines without demanding accountability. Even a cursory examination of what happened would provoke great consternation—revealing, at times, a grim and tragic comedy of errors.
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Afghanistan is an unforgiving and mountainous country. One reason perhaps it is called “the graveyard of empires.” A whopping 1 percent of the country is thickly forested, which makes the decision of a singular Afghan official—as I detail in my recent book, The Broken Contract—to demand forest camouflage uniforms for the Afghan National Army to be absurd. Nevertheless, each American paid about $.25, for a total $28 million for these marginally useful uniforms.
Perhaps the camouflage did some good, though—after all, the Afghan National Army all but disappeared from view in a very short span of time.
The deeper we dig, the more upsetting the numbers and corruption get. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that, in 2018, some $15 billion dollars of government funds were wasted, used fraudulently, or otherwise abused. A further $8 billion was spent on buildings and vehicles since 2008. Astoundingly, less than 10 percent of that outlay was in good condition, although of course that may be a blessing in disguise, given said military’s collapse.
Otherwise, the Taliban would have still more American weapons and supplies on hand. Weapons and supplies that will be used to suppress the Afghan people. We can be thankful that some brave Afghan pilots flew their aircraft out of the country, preventing some of that advanced weaponry from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Of course, not all the aircraft made it out, and who’s to say the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan won’t trade that technology to American rivals in exchange for aid and investment?
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It happened before, after all, when the Chinese got their hands on an American aircraft that had crashed during the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
All of these numbers, added together, total around $83 billion, which is the amount of money that went to build up the capability of the Afghan National Army. There is another still more eye-popping amount that should be considered. It is estimated that America spent close to $2 trillion over the course of the entire Afghanistan war, to say nothing of the many Americans who lost their lives, the many more who are seriously injured and the even more who are traumatized.
An Afghan armed man
An armed man supporting the Afghan security forces against the Taliban pictured with weapons at Parakh area in Bazarak, Panjshir province on August 19, 2021.
AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Could it be that a culture of outsourcing and a culture of contractors is partly to blame?
Consider that this spring there were still some 7,000 contractors in Afghanistan, helping to run its military and keep its Air Force in good order. Why, one wonders, would America build up a military it knew could not sustain itself if America’s intention was to eventually hand power back to the Afghans? Could it be that war profiteers and their allies hoped to reap handsome profits from continuing non-governmental relationships even after the United States officially departed the country?
An Afghan National Army under severe pressure from the Taliban would be consistently desperate for ammunition and expertise, leading to a potentially wildly lucrative opportunity. Of course, we cannot know until we investigate further, even as this is in the immediate moment a theoretical exercise. The Afghan National Army has apparently disappeared. But shouldn’t we ask why? Shouldn’t we wonder what happened? Shouldn’t we ask how this happened?
To know whether we should go to war in the future, and if circumstances demand that, how we should go to war as well. With the Taliban slipping back into their brutal patterns, it goes without saying that these questions receive greater urgency. At the very least, we should be heartened that the Taliban’s manipulation and perversion of my religion are not inescapable. In the past, Afghanistan was a more liberal and tolerant place, which means it is possible to be that again.
We owe it to the Afghan people to understand whether our decisions made that future more likely or less likely.
Just as American citizens deserve transparency and honesty, so do the people of Afghanistan.
Dr. Saqib Qureshi is author of the Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Efficient, Representative, and Accountable. He is an award-winning author, an expert in democratic policy development and has advised multiple governments. He is the CEO of the top Toronto-based real estate firm Building Capital, and previously worked at HSBC Investment Bank and McKinsey & Co. He has written for The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Entrepreneur, Euronews and TRTWorld. In addition he is author of the award-winning book Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing with the God of Objectivity. He is currently a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics (LSE)