By James Emery*
The rapid fall of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) on August 15, 2021 was predictable to those who are familiar with the vast levels of corruption that plagued the country during the last twenty years. Widespread corruption, cronyism, extortion, and theft permeated all aspects of Afghan society, from the presidential palace and top government officials to lowly civil servants and cops, who routinely shook down the population for money and merchandise.
Corruption was the cancer that consumed Afghanistan, leaving a flaccid, shell of a country that could only exist if it was perpetually propped up by foreign money and military forces.
The primary blame for the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces is Hamid Karzai, accompanied by thousands of corrupt Afghan government and security officials, including President Ghani, who was widely reported to have fled Afghanistan with US $169 million in cash. This is in addition to the millions of United States (US) dollars that Afghan government officials pilfered and transferred to banks in Dubai and other cities during the previous twenty years of US stabilization efforts.
After his arrival in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), President Ghani gave a speech in which he said that he was proud of the Afghan security and defense forces, noting that they were not defeated and did not fail, ignoring the fact that most of them gave up without firing a shot. President Ghani then went on to blame the international community for the failures of Afghanistan. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai issued similar statements, blaming the United States and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for the fall of Afghanistan.
President Ghani’s statement that the ANSF were not defeated has an element of truth since so many ANSF units surrendered, forfeiting their positions without a fight, instead of being defeated in battle. Additionally, there were several reports that ANSF units received orders from the presidential palace to peaceably surrender to the Taliban, instead of fighting them. Given the low morale, inferior skills, and flawed leadership within much – not all – of the ANSF, and their disdain for the pervasive corruption of GIRoA, little was required to discourage most ANSF units from fighting.
The Dubai Express
The banks in Dubai, UAE were a favorite destination for illicit funds deposited by crooked Afghan officials and others. Reportedly, during the last two decades, millions of US dollars were being flown out of Kabul airport each week. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that US $3 billion in cash had been openly flown from Kabul to Dubai during the previous three years, based upon customs declarations. Other investigators put the number at US $2.5 billion per year, noting the absence of customs’ declarations in many transfers.
Closer scrutiny was provided following the Kabul Bank scandal of 2010. The Congressional Research Service reported that $4.5 billion was taken out of Afghanistan in 2011, with most of it being unmonitored and unregistered. Dubai, London, Zurich, and other cities were choice destinations for illicit cash deposits coming from Afghanistan. The actual amount of money taken out of Afghanistan by GIRoA and ANSF officials, Afghan elites, contractors, narcotics traffickers and criminal groups was likely much higher. One US official noted that during an 18 month period, just one of the Afghan couriers had transported US $2.3 billion
Initially, many Afghan officials and elites declared the money, making it legal to transport, since it would be difficult to ignore pallets of bundled suitcases that were full of cash. How many of these documented records were destroyed after the transfer is unknown. Some of the cash was diverted from US, ISAF, and international aid and development programs. Additional; money came from graft, criminal activities, and narcotics trafficking. Since many Afghan officials and elites profited from criminal activity, they needed a risk-free pipeline to transfer illicit cash to major markets to be laundered and invested.
The US embassy in Kabul established a “bulk cash flow action plan” to document the flow of cash out of Afghanistan. This included sophisticated currency counting machines that registered the value and serial number of the bills at the rate of 900 bills a minute. The machines had to be hooked up to the Internet so they could link with the central bank to identify the names of the couriers and monitor the amounts and frequency of cash they were moving.
The action plan and its technology were foiled by Afghan officials, who failed to properly install the machines, ensuring the amounts and serial numbers were not recorded and nothing was sent to the central bank. A year after installation, most of the machines were still offline, and virtually the only financial accounting was for traditional travelers, not cash couriers. Another problem with this tracking program is that Afghan officials manning the machines and working customs and departure feared for their jobs and their lives if they initiated any action that displeased financial couriers and Afghan elites.
President Hamid Karzai countered US efforts to monitor illicit cash transfers of US and international aid, embezzlement, extortion, narcotics trafficking, and other criminal activities by providing “Very Important Person” (VIP) passes than enabled the holder to skip the financial accounting process, while being authorized to carry or transport any amount of international currencies.
To make the transfer of illicit money easier for cronies, couriers, and high-ranking officials, Hamid Karzai built a “Very Very Important Person” (VVIP) lounge that enabled those with VVIP pass holders to avoid the customs screenings and currency counters. The VIP and VVIP passes made it much easier to carry out bulk cash smuggling and money laundering, including couriers transferring pallets of suitcases filled with cash.
Additional billions – from embezzlement, extortion, racketeering, narcotics, and other criminal activity – was smuggled from Kabul to Dubai and other cities. Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hamid Karzai’s Vice President from December 2004 to November 2009, flew into Dubai during October 2009 with US $52 million in cash. Dubai authorities questioned him, but let him go without requiring any explanations as to where the money came from. Illicit cash was one of Dubai’s most lucrative imports, with full courtesies extended to the couriers. The Dubai banks knew they were handling billions in illicit funds. They didn’t care about its origin, only where it was deposited.
Most of the money was transported by Pamir Airlines, which was owned by the Kabul Bank and several Afghan elites, including Mohammad Fahim, Hamid Karzai’s Vice President from 2009 to 2014 and Mahmood Karzai, President Karzai’s brother. The Washington Post reported that criminal investigators and prosecutors in Afghanistan were ordered to ignore evidence against bank officials and others suspected of helping GIRoA officials and Afghan elite transfer millions of US dollars to banks overseas. They were also told to block out the names of GIRoA and ANSF officials on criminal case files to protect them from arrest and prosecution.
In the case of large payoffs, corrupt Afghan officials would often fly to Dubai to ensure that their multimillion dollar bribes were properly deposited. For example, when Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, the GIRoA Minister of Mines, took a US $30 million dollar bribe in 2007, he flew to Dubai to close the deal. In return for the bribe, the state-run China Metallurgical Group Corporation was given a 30-year lease for their US $3 billion contract for the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province. The value of the copper reserves in the Mes Aynak mine is estimated to be US $50 billion, giving China a very profitable return on their bid and bribe.
Security issues hindered the Mes Aynak project, but the Taliban victory will facilitate full scale mining operations, China will likely take over the former US base at Bagram, providing security and logistical support for their ever-expanding operations to exploit Afghanistan’s minerals and resources.
The Minister of Mines was a highly desirable and lucrative cabinet post due to Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources and the huge bribes being offered and demanded to win bids. In 2006, Mohammad Adel was appointed to the position of Minister of Mines by Hamid Karzai, who likely got a significant cut of the Mes Aynak mine deal, along with millions more from other bribes that Adel was accused of extorting.
Following his appointment, Mohammad Adel took charge of the transfer of the Ghori cement plant from government ownership to the private sector. This was Afghanistan’s primary cement plant. It was reported to be producing over 300 million tons of cement per year, fueled by the building boom created by the international community. As the bidding from private sector firms began to wrap up, Adel reportedly demanded US $25 million in cash from participants – paid to him – to facilitate the process and ensure selection. These type of illicit deals were the norm in Afghanistan during the twenty year US and ISAF stabilization efforts.
Overly Centralized Government Control Fueled Corruption
One of the primary problems with the initial GIRoA template established by the United States is that it was overly centralized, giving too much power to the president. This fueled corruption, while undermining the effectiveness, efficiency, and support of GIRoA at the district, provincial, and national levels.
Under the US plan, the Afghan president appointed the governors and other officials in each of the 34 provinces, instead of the decentralized method that allows the respective residents of each province to select their own officials. This overly centralized system made all of the governors dependent upon Hamid Karzai – and his successor, Ashraf Ghani – for their positions, generally to the detriment of Afghanistan and US stabilization efforts. Local populations felt disconnected, ignored, and abused by these forced presidential appointments, weakening the essential foundational tiers of local participation and support of GIRoA.
When he was president of Afghanistan – 2001 to 2014 (acting, interim, and elected) – Hamid Karzai appointed the national ministers and provincial governors, highly desirable positions due to the millions of US dollars they could extort and steal, without any threat of investigation or indictment, as long as the president got his cut. Hamid Karzai was criticized for choosing people who were best suited to maximize the graft potential of positions, rather than appointing ethically-centered individuals with superior skill sets and experience that would most benefit Afghanistan at the respective provincial and national level.
While GIRoA’s ability to maintain the support of the population required ethical and effective local, regional, and national governance, Hamid Karzai appointed corrupt criminal cronies to key government positions. He was no better at delegating tasks, often selecting crooks and cronies. When specific scandals would break, focusing on his appointees, Hamid Karzai would simply rotate the rogues from one province or position to another.
Graft was part of the Afghan Spoils System. Crooked officials were expected to kick up some of their unscrupulous profiteering to their superiors to maintain their position, while gaining implicit immunity from investigation and prosecution. They also kicked some lucrative positions, money, and benefits down, to maintain the loyalty and insulation of key underlings.
Kabul Bank Scandal
Mahmood Karzai – the president’s brother – was involved in the Kabul bank heist that broke in 2010. It was a Ponzi scheme that used fake firms and letters to funnel US $861 million in fraudulent loans to 19 individuals and firms. This was more than 92 percent of the bank’s loan portfolio. The recipients included relatives and cronies of President Hamid Karzai and his first vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who was reportedly trafficking heroin, before and after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Mohammad Fahim was also the driving force behind the Kabul (Sherpur) housing scandal in 2003, along with Basir Salangi, the chief of police of Kabul at that time. In 2009, Hamid Karzai appointed Salangi governor of Parwan, which generated vast graft income from contracts and extortion tied to Bagram Airfield and Parwan province.
The Kabul bank’s management threatened to kill international investigators and others, if they revealed the presence and extent of the fraud. As loans passed the 180 day mark without having made any payments, they were supposed to be flagged, but complicit Kabul bank managers listed them all as being up to date.
Haseen Fahim, the first vice president’s brother, took US $93 million in business loans. Mahmood Karzai and other elites – politically connected to Hamid Karzai – drained the bank’s deposits. In addition to his other loans, the Kabul Bank gave Mahmood Karzai a US $22 million, interest free loan to purchase a 7 percent share of the bank, making him the third largest stock holder. Another US $4 million was siphoned to Hamid Karzai’s 2009 reelection campaign.
US $160 million in Kabul Bank loans was used to purchase 35 Palm Jumeirah luxury estates on the Arabian Sea in Dubai, UAE. Sher Khan Farnood, the chairman of the Kabul Bank chairman, owned many Palm Jumeirah properties. Crooked Kabul bank officials reportedly used some of these villas to host parties for visiting members of Afghan Parliament. The Afghan politicians were provided with alcohol and women, compromising them to ensure their silence regarding the bank’s irregularities, while making them vulnerable for future exploitation to facilitate and protect other scams.
US $935 million was lost through loan scams and US $66 million through other irregularities, for a total exceeding US $1 billion. This money came from the population and from US and ISAF countries’ donations to fund Afghan programs, including the payrolls for Afghan military and police. The fraudulent, unsecured loans were not repaid, leading to the collapse of the Kabul Bank. Predictably, Hamid Karzai vehemently blamed the United States and the international community for the bank’s collapse, while failing to divulge how much he was paid for protecting the thieves and disrupting their criminal investigations.
When the initial inquiry of the bank fraud led to the arrest of a Karzai associate – who was working out of the presidential palace, Hamid Karzai angrily condemned the arrest that could have led to him. US officials swiftly capitulated, and the investigation stalled. Perhaps, sensing an easy “mark,” Mahmood Karzai asked the United States to bail out the bank, which he, and cronies of the Karzai crime family, had just looted. His bold request – in the face of his complicity in the crime – was not surprising.
The Sugar Daddy Syndrome
Afghanistan was a kleptocracy, with politicians, power brokers, and the elites plundering foreign aid and the Afghan economy with little restraint and no consequences. The Karzai’s – and other corrupt Afghan leaders and elites – viewed the United States and international community as willfully obtuse, easily manipulated “Sugar Daddy’s,” recklessly doling out money, projects, and military support, while being repeatedly exploited and abused. Many GIRoA and ANSF officials encouraged the US and ISAF to do most of the fighting in the Afghan war, while unsavory Afghan officials continued their extortion and theft to fund their exit strategy.
The primary concern the Karzai’s and other corrupt Afghan elites had about Afghanistan, was how they could keep the United States and the international community engaged in the war, so they could continue stealing billions of US dollars, before fleeing the country with their families, while GIRoA and the ANSF collapsed.
The United States became the complicit enabler and enforcer for scores of corrupt GIRoA and ANSF officials, while denying the extent of the problems to the combined Houses of US Congress, the media, and the population, whose hard-earned tax dollars were knowingly and deliberately supporting corrupt Afghan officials and elites.
It can be argued that the massive, well-publicized Kabul Bank scandal was a significant turning point in the Afghan war. The blatancy of the theft carried out by relatives and cronies of Hamid Karzai, who in turn bullied US officials into silence and surrender, shook Afghanistan to its core. After the Kabul Bank scandal, the depth and breadth of corruption and abuse of power dramatically increased, exponentially throughout Afghanistan. Virtually everyone in Afghanistan knew that the country was doomed, due to massive corruption and the American’s fatal decision to ignore it. The only motivation left for most Afghan officials was to steal as much as they could, before the US left and the country collapsed.
The United States should have withdrawn most of their forces within a few years of the invasion, and most certainly by 2011, following the Kabul Bank scandal, when it was obvious to everyone that they would never challenge high level corruption in Afghanistan. All the insurgents had to do was survive, knowing that GIRoA and the ANSF – paper shells, gutted by corruption and incompetence – would collapse as soon as the US left.
Proliferation of Corruption and Lies
US government and military officials continued to tolerate corruption and incompetency, while incessantly lying to the American public about the status of the war and the capacity of GIRoA and ANSF, whom competent officials knew would never be able to govern and protect the county on their own. The big winners were the massive US Military Industrial Complex (MIC), along with complicit US politicians, who reaped lucrative donations from the MIC, and US military leaders, who continued to hype and lie about a lost war for the lucrative positions they would garner from the MIC following their retirement from the military.
After 9/11, the top five US Defense Contractors made $2.02 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, while spending about $2.5 billion on lobbying to encourage more weapons and war. During this 20-year period, the MIC’s generous campaign contributions helped turn ethically-challenged politicians into duplicitous, war-mongering sock puppets. Much of the “War on Terror” is like the war in Afghanistan – fueled by greed and deception.
The US media, incestuously intertwined with the US MIC, power elites, and the intelligence community, continued the fraud, knowingly and deliberately deceiving the population. When covering military matters and foreign affairs, the US media features retired military officers – as so-called unbiased experts – without revealing that virtually all of these duplicitous, millionaire, war profiteers are connected to the Military Industrial Complex. Some have full time jobs with the MIC, some serve on several MIC boards, and others have their own MIC firms. None of this was – or is – divulged to the American and international public.
Buildings, Bribes, and Flaws
Virtually everything in Afghanistan required one or more bribes, from paying utility bills to transferring the deed of your property to your sons. After Afghan contractors completed a building or other projects, they were required to have an Afghan official sign off on a form before they could get paid from the money provided by international donors. Most of the contractors had already paid for the materials and labor associated with projects, but they had to give corrupt, Afghan government officials large bribes to get paid for their work. Photographs, letters, and other documentation that proved they had done the work, were irrelevant. These crooked officials didn’t care about the quality of construction, or even if the project had been completed. They just wanted the bribes, which increased proportionately for larger and costlier projects.
Provincial governors provided contacts and projects to contractors in return for lucrative bribes. Additionally, on some occasions, unsavory governors would send their armed enforcers to job sites, detaining the respective contractors until they paid up.
There was virtually no quality control on building projects, and many bids were won by large firms that paid bribes to secure them and then sold the excess bids to smaller firms. The contracts might be flipped one of more times, with each new building contractor having a smaller profit margin. This caused them to skimp on materials and workmanship.
In some cases, the concrete used in buildings was dangerously weak from subcontractors using excess water, insufficient cement, and whatever sand, gravel, and other materials were available nearby in fields or streambeds. There were no consequences for inferior work. The failure to use local contractors – who had a vested interest and connection to the community – compounded this problem.
Desperate Afghans, who had been promised development projects often found that their new schools, clinics, and public buildings had numerous flaws, including leaky roofs, collapsing walls, inoperable overhead lights with disconnected wires dangling, nonfunctioning toilets, lack of electricity and/or water, and numerous other problems. Additionally, schools, clinics, and hospitals might be provided with little or no staff.
About 75 percent of Afghans live in rural sections of the country. Most villages and towns, along with many urban neighborhoods, were too poor to afford the bribes for public services and other considerations that they were supposed to receive. Since the teachers in outlying villages were not paid very much, some of them had other fulltime jobs, often leaving students to teach themselves. Other officials padded their income by selling the supplies provided by international donors that they were supposed to be distributing to the villages, free of charge. This included everything from seed and agricultural provisions to clothing, radios, and other donations.
Hospitals and clinics received millions of dollars in medical supplies and prescriptions from international donors. These were supposed to be given to their patients, but some of the medical staff stole them for resale, with doctors selling donated prescriptions through the respective pharmacies they owned.
Defective Materials and Loss of Honor
Under the US stabilization efforts, metaphorically, Afghanistan was knowingly being rebuilt with termite infested wood, double-knot beams, and watered down cement that represented the vast corruption, incompetence, and greed of GIRoA and ANSF.
Why should Afghan security forces and the population risk their lives in fighting the Taliban on behalf of sordid officials whose rampant corruption and abuse has been more frequent and devastating than the crimes of the insurgents? Corrupt Afghan officials and security forces preyed upon the population in broad daylight, and at every other time, regardless of witnesses.
Afghan government and security officials routinely shook down the population at every opportunity, from civil servants requiring bribes for virtually every transaction and service to the police randomly stopping drivers and pedestrians, to demand money. Afghans complained to US and ISAF forces and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but nothing changed. However, a formal complaint could have devastating consequences to victims and informants, especially when Westerners carelessly shared the information with the perpetrators.
Afghan government and security officials did more than steal the money and material goods of Afghans, they typically sullied their dignity and honor in the process, humiliating them in front of their families, friends, and neighbors. The role of honor in West Asia and the Middle East is significant. For millions of poverty-ridden Afghans, their honor is all they really had when abusive, degrading officials and crooked cops repeatedly humiliate and abuse them.
The Afghan population felt betrayed, exploited, and abused – threatened and oppressed by the Taliban on one side, and shaken down and mistreated by corrupt GIRoA and ANSF officials on the other. Many Afghans loathed GIRoA and the ANSF, causing some to switch their tepid support to the Taliban, whom they deemed the lesser of two evils.
US and ISAF officials and NGOs were well aware of the extensive corruption and criminal activities of Afghan officials, from top-tier leaders and power brokers to local government officials and security forces. Nothing of consequence was ever done about it, leading many Afghans to believe that the US was complicit – allowing corrupt officials to steal money and resources in exchange for supporting the US occupation.
Fraudulent Elections Sully Democratic Ideals
Afghan elections were plagued by massive fraud, with duplicate and fake voter registration, the mass sale and use of extra voting cards, ballot boxes being stuffed, voter intimidation, and other irregularities. Prior to presidential elections, Afghanistan was flooded with thousands of voting cards, many of which were sold in Kabul and other cities. On election day, men would put stacks of voting cards into the ballot box, with some claiming they were for female members of the extended family. In spot checks, 40 percent of the people registered to vote had multiple entries, with one individual submitting 500 voting cards.
Hamid Karzai’s henchmen and cronies reportedly stuffed countless ballot boxes, while closing polls or switching out ballot boxes at locations where Karzai’s opponents had strong support. During the presidential election of 2009, international monitors, backed by the United Nations (UN) disqualified more than one million votes, following random examinations of some of the ballot boxes. The actual number of fraudulent votes was likely several million.
There were numerous examples of fraud. Upon completion of the voting, ballot boxes might have many times the number of votes, compared to the number of actual voters. In high risk polling locations that remained open, but received little or no voters, some ballot boxes would be stuffed to capacity. The ink that was applied to the finger to prevent people from voting more than once, could often be washed off, enabling paid shills and supporters to repeatedly vote throughout the day.
The 2009 Presidential election was monitored by Afghanistan’s Independent Elections Commission (IEC). This was supposed to be an unbiased agency, but all seven members of the commission had been appointed by Hamid Karzai, including the chairman, a former Karzai advisor, who actively supported Hamid Karzai in the presidential race.
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP), which was monitoring election fraud, declared, “The registration system [for voting] included no real barriers against multiple registration and the IEC was unable to reliably identify duplicate voter ID cards for deletion. As a result, each subsequent election saw the addition of millions of new names to the voter rolls but no process to remove old or duplicate registrations. After the 2014 registration, the number of voter registration cards issued stood at twenty-three million. Yet it is estimated that only half of Afghanistan’s thirty million people are of voting age, meaning that up to eight million of the voter cards in circulation are either duplicates or obsolete.” This is in addition to the fraudulent voting cards that were being sold and submitted.
The USIP added, “Another problem is that registration does not link voters to individual polling stations, which is common practice in established democracies. Without an accurate count of how many voters live where, the IEC must oversupply every polling station with extra ballot papers because it has no way of knowing which polling station a voter will go to on Election Day. These additional ballot papers, along with inaccurate voter lists and the lack of credible ID cards, have enabled fraudulent ballot box stuffing.” The USIP found that some of the staff at polling stations were stuffing ballot boxes.
US State Department officials said they were aware of Hamid Karzai’s vast corruption, but did not want to initiate any formal investigations during an election, because it could be perceived they were helping his opponent. The fact is, US and ISAF officials chose to ignore ongoing corruption and election fraud before, during, and after the election.
Hamid Karzai was the biggest crook in Afghanistan, and everyone knew it. The failure of the United States to indict and prosecute Hamid Karzai and other blatantly corrupt officials, ensured that much of the Afghan population – including its security forces – viewed the US as a corrupt and complicit occupying army that sanctioned the abuse and extortion of the population.
When Afghans in villages and towns were asked who they were going to vote for during elections, most of them scoffed at the process. They felt their vote was meaningless. In addition to citing massive election fraud, the general consensus was that all the officials were corrupt. Afghans felt that the elected officials and their cronies would steal as much money as they could, while doing nothing for the population.
In discussing their opinion of the Afghan judicial system, many Afghans said they avoided the courts, because they could not afford the bribes required for the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. This encouraged some villages to rely upon Taliban courts that were run by the insurgency’s shadow government in many districts.
Fueling Corruption on a Grand Scale
The United States spent over $2.3 trillion during the 20 year war in Afghanistan, an average of over $300 million a day. The actual amount is significantly higher if all related expenditures are included. Much of this went to US military forces, contractors, and weapons. ISAF countries, NGOs, and international donors significantly added to these amounts, as did massive loan forgiveness and other inducements provided by the US to urge countries to join or support the coalition.
The United States and others were complicit in fueling the corruption crisis in Afghanistan. US, ISAF, and international donor countries and organizations began doling out money, materials, and projects, rapidly exhausting the capacity of Afghanistan’s underdeveloped human and governmental resources and infrastructure. It was simply too much, too soon, with most of it being disproportionally allocated. Some individuals, contractors, and communities were flooded with money, while others got little or nothing.
Additional challenges were created by high illiteracy rates, lack of skilled workers and contractors, lack of paved roads and infrastructure, and historical corruption and cronyism.
Afghanistan quickly hit a saturation point on development. Contractors and resources were over capacity, but billions of dollars kept flowing into the country, creating a feeding frenzy of greed and corruption, layered with incompetence and abuse. Money, contracts, and supplies were doled out to government and military officials, warlords, contractors, and others with virtually no accountability. Money and supplies intended for security forces, villages, communities, and others were often redirected, with the cash being pocketed and the supplies being sold.
Most of the time, it appeared that US policymakers equated the excessive expenditures of money and projects with some intangible, inherent capacity to bring stability to Afghanistan. In reality, it had the opposite effect. It would have been more effective to have significantly reduced the expenditures and projects to a manageable level, while initiating essential monitoring and follow-up to ensure the quality and completion of projects.
US officials also fueled corruption by offering gifts, bribes, inducements, and rewards for Afghan officials that supported US-backed policies and initiatives, from tribal councils to districts, provinces, the two houses of parliament, and the presidential palace. Afghans quickly got wise when they saw political adversaries and holdouts getting gifts and incentives from the US in exchange for supporting their position. Afghan policymakers realized their votes were worth money and spoils. Soon, virtually every one of the respective Afghan politicians expected to be paid off, even if they would have supported the specific proposition or policy, anyway.
Lots of money was paid out to garner the Afghan support for women’s rights. US and international politicians hyped the paper victories as a sign of progress in Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that 75 percent of the population lived in rural towns and villages that would see little of no change in the treatment and opportunities of women.
The US Occupation Helped Fund the Taliban
The Taliban profited greatly from US and ISAF operations, extorting protection money to allow construction and development projects, transport of commodities and supplies, and other commercial activities. Some of the coalition partners were rumored to be paying protection money to insurgents if they agreed not to attack their compounds and forward operating bases (FOBs). The Taliban and other insurgents also taxed or stole shipments and supplies, in addition to scores of other money-making schemes.
In one case – with variations repeated throughout the country – the son of an Afghan Army Colonel was awarded a lucrative contract to build a road. To prevent insurgent disruptions, the son reportedly agreed to pay Taliban commanders more than US $30,000 to refrain from attacking his workers or destroying the equipment. This was typical. The insurgents made a fortune on US and ISAF development projects, supply shipments, and other facets of a prolonged, military occupation that lacked coherent objectives or purpose.
Many Taliban commanders were sorry to see the US and ISAF reduce force levels and leave the country, because they and other insurgents were making so much money on them. Like their GIRoA counterparts, some insurgent leaders became greedy and spoiled by the profitable presence of foreign troops and developers. These unsavory habits – combined with renewed international donors and developers – have the potential to make the new Taliban-led government of Afghanistan a corrupt and abusive mirror of GIRoA.
In addition to donations the Taliban received from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and other countries, they collected taxes and controlled legitimate businesses, including many of Afghanistan’s lucrative mining sites. The Taliban earned considerable income from all facets of the cultivation, processing, and distribution of narcotics. They are also involved in money laundering, smuggling, extortion, robbery, hijacking, kidnapping, murder, and countless other crimes. The Taliban are a criminal enterprise that individually and collectively justifies their transgressions by cloaking them with the veils of religion and nationalism.
The United States also funded insurgents by giving Pakistan over US $40 billion between 2002 and 2021 for their “assistance” with the conflict in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism. The total value of Pakistani loan debts forgiven during the last 20 years would substantially add to this total. The Taliban were created by Pakistan, who always supported them militarily and politically, including assistance with intel operations, targeting, and terrorist attacks. Pakistan was the primary supporter of jihadi terrorists and insurgents in the region, as well as masters of deception and duplicity. It’s unknown how much of the $40 billion, US taxpayer funded payoffs to Pakistan were used to provide weapons, supplies, and cash to the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Hezb-e Islami – all of whom were attacking, maiming, and killing US, ISAF, ANSF, and GIRoA soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. US officials have known this for years, but ignored it.
Counterinsurgency and a Can of Soup
During the US and ISAF occupation, GIRoA and the ANSF quickly lost the trust and support of the Afghan population. One of the most important components of counterinsurgency operations (COIN) is that it is imperative to have an effective, ethical, and legitimate government that garners support from the population. Without that, counterinsurgency operations are the equivalent of putting a can of soup – representing US and ISAF forces, into a bowl – representing Afghanistan, filled with water – representing the Taliban insurgency – and expecting that the water will not occupy the space held by the can, after it is removed. That’s Afghanistan, and other flawed military ventures that failed to heed the core principles of COIN, especially the need to have competent, effective, and ethical government and security forces in place that are supported by the population.
Trying to implement the respective facets of COIN without having an effective, ethical government is as foolish as trying to construct a wagon wheel by inserting spokes into the felloes – the outer rim of a wagon wheel – without having a central hub to attach them too.
There were some competent and honest Afghan government and security officials. However, even if an official wanted to be honest and effective, their unethical superiors might insist upon graft and payoffs for them to retain their position and get the resources they needed to provide services to their employees and the population.
By 2010, the United States had effectively caved in on the corruption issue, making little to no pretence of even addressing it. The hard-earned money, provided by US taxpayers and deficit spending, continued to flow into Afghanistan, enriching crooked government and security officials, unsavory elites, the Taliban, and others.
The colossal levels of corruption in Afghanistan made it impossible to ever win the war. The US needed to take a clear, firm line on corruption, making select examples of those who failed to comply, to serve as a warning to others. Failing to do that, they might as well have been dropping off weapons, ammunition, money, and supplies to the insurgency, instead of taking the long route by funding and supporting corrupt GIRoA and ANSF officials.
This incessant greed, deception, and corruption by GIRoA and the ANSF was more of a threat to the stability and sustainability of Afghanistan, than the Taliban or al-Qaeda. The excessive corruption, incompetence, and greed caused debilitating cancers and decay from within. The failure of US, ISAF, and Afghan officials to deal with corruption left a county that lacked the capacity for governance, rule of law, military defense, policing, or the support of its population. It was catastrophically doomed to fail.
Many corrupt Afghan officials and powerbrokers stole enough money to flee the country. Others, stole enough to live well, regardless of who’s in power. The losers are the bulk of the population, most of whom were euphoric when the United States removed the oppressive Taliban regime. These people – along with ethical Afghan allies in GIRoA and ANSF – deserve better than they got. So do US and ISAF soldiers and their respective populations that funded this twenty year fiasco of lies, theft, corruption, and incompetence.
The US has many people with the essential core traits – integrity, knowledge, experience, motivation, and skill – to have correctly addressed and administered the situation in Afghanistan. However, it seems they are often pushed aside by ambitious and unethical dullards, tyrants, and ideologues, who sully operations, along with the reputation of their country. The United States should be better than that, but lacks the will to remove or neutralize the scum that rises to the top tiers of power and influence.
*James Emery, a cultural anthropologist, has covered Afghanistan for over 35 years, including numerous trips into the country with the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation, in addition to scores of interviews with mujahideen political leaders, commanders, and others. He’s covered all facets of Afghan narcotics trafficking – from source to street. He worked with US, ISAF, and ANSF units on both sides of the wire, in addition to conducting interviews and building rapport in Afghan villages and towns. He may be contacted at [email protected]