Part 1, Chapter 5
Afghanistan Since 9/11
She really thought there was a lot to be done [in Afghanistan], and she could be a part of it … As parents you always want to make sure no harm comes to your children, but I knew that she wanted to embrace this opportunity.
—Mary Beth Smedinghoff
Some of the [Afghan Local Police] are just Taliban, who have been recruited to the government side, and if they don’t get paid, they can easily go back to the Taliban overnight.
On the security front the entire Nato exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure.
—President Hamid Karzai
Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was in Afghanistan to make a difference. The 25-year-old from Chicago volunteered for the dangerous position knowing it would offer plenty of opportunities. In her time there she worked with the public, helping Afghani women and schoolchildren. She spent much of her time there in a heavily fortified compound, relatively safe from the violence plaguing the countryside. But, as friends and colleagues recall, she was eager to get outside to help the people more directly.
In April 2013, she got an opportunity. She joined a convoy from Kabul carrying a load of science and math textbooks to southern Afghanistan. The U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team was engaged in efforts to improve the education of young Afghans in Zabul province—an area where the uneducated often find themselves involved in the dangerous but lucrative drug trade. Smedinghoff was coordinating with Afghan journalists to cover an event at a local school with an eye toward making more Afghans aware of the educational opportunities arising in their country.
Smedinghoff and four other Americans were walking through a town in Zabul when a suicide bomber drove up in a vehicle loaded with explosives and detonated. Reportedly, a device set up on the roadside also went off. The young diplomat was killed, together with three soldiers, a civilian contractor, and an Afghan doctor. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack.
The fate of American intervention in Afghanistan has been similar to the fate of idealistic young diplomat Anne Smedinghoff. Even the best intentions in that country are prey to the hostility of Islamic radicals. So long as such radicals are around, no amount of diplomats or textbooks will be able to transform the country from its current state.
The case of Corporal Pat Tillman illustrates a related problem. Tillman was also an admirable figure, turning down a $3.6 million NFL contract to serve his country as an Army Ranger. Motivated by patriotism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Tillman also wanted to make a difference. He was on his second tour in Afghanistan in 2004 when his group was mistaken for enemy combatants and killed by friendly fire. Compounding the tragedy, the military initially covered up the true cause of death—a fact many believe arose from their desire to use him as a recruiting tool. Tillman’s death also serves as a tragic metaphor for what has plagued American policy in Afghanistan for years: the inability to properly define and deal with the enemy.
REMOVING THE TALIBAN
In response to the September 11 attacks, Americans and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in October, 2001. Their aim was to destroy terrorist training camps and capture senior al-Qaeda leadership. To accomplish these goals, the coalition relied primarily on Special Forces units and aerial bombardments, with some ground support from insurgent groups hostile to the Taliban (most prominently the Northern Alliance). This approach proved quite successful in accomplishing some of the goals. Terrorist training camps were destroyed and the Taliban was driven from power—at least officially. But Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders disappeared.
Although the Taliban was unrecognized by the majority of the world community (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being notable exceptions), by 2001 they had been the closest thing to a government within Afghanistan’s borders for half a decade. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance could displace them, but they could not control the country. Many problems confronting the U.S. in Afghanistan stem from this basic issue. If violent fundamentalists will not govern in Afghanistan, who can?
Since 2002, the answer has been the government of Hamid Karzai. Karzai’s background in many ways mirrors that of our deadliest enemies in Afghanistan. He first made a name for himself in the 80s working as a fundraiser for the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. He spent much of his time in Pakistan, coordinating with the ISI and the CIA—much as Osama bin Laden did at the same time. But Karzai was a native Afghan, and his patrician background made him more of a royalist than an Islamist. When the Taliban began to emerge in the 90s, he supported them at first as a viable Pashtun alternative to the current rulers who had arrested and beat him. He later backed away when the destructiveness of their policies and their foreign influences were revealed. Then he became an anti-Taliban leader across the border in Quetta, Pakistan, where the Taliban assassinated his father in 1999. Karzai cultivated connections in the West, which culminated in his appointment to lead the transitional government in 2002.
The U.S. and the West have supported Karzai and his Afghan government with money, diplomacy, and military might. In many ways, this government has been a significant improvement over the Taliban. But significant problems remain unsolved—problems which threaten to undo everything the U.S. has attempted since first engaging the Taliban in 2001.
CORRUPTION AND WASTE
In 2012, Karzai described the corruption in his government as a level “not ever before seen in Afghanistan,” even during Soviet occupation. Although Karzai blamed the United States, most outside observers agree that Karzai bears responsibility as well—appointing family members and fellow tribal members to key government positions. Still, Karzai had a point. At least one security expert has admitted, “The fact is that we are at least as much to blame for what has happened as the Afghans, and we have been grindingly slow to either admit our efforts or correct them.”
The example of purchasing fuel will illustrate the nature of the corruption. In 2014 the U.S. military will hand over to the Afghan National Army (ANA) the responsibility for purchasing all the oil and lubricants it needs. The annual bill will be paid by the U.S. government ($343 million) and international donors ($123 million). The funding will be based on estimates by the ANA, but the U.S. has no method for checking on the validity of these estimates. Without such checks, it’s easy for unscrupulous members of the supply chain to overestimate their needs, invoice for the overestimate, and pocket the difference. A number of American servicemen have already been caught in similar plots.
Are Afghans more likely to be circumspect with American money? In 2013, unidentified Afghans stole about $50 million worth of U.S. government funds and placed it all in an Afghan bank account. When American investigators found out about the theft, they froze the account and tried to trace the money. Within days a “powerful bureaucrat in Kabul” unfroze the account and the money disappeared.
An investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 placed partial responsibility for a corrupt system on the Department of Defense. The study noted that DoD’s reliance on largely unaccountable contractors and security providers “has fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others.” Government reliance on wartime contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has been cited as a prime cause for about $60 billion worth of waste and fraud.
The Afghan government hasn’t impressed outside observers, either. In 2012, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan’s public sector joint last in the world, right alongside Somalia and North Korea. One of the largest examples of Afghan corruption is the Kabul Bank Scandal which was revealed in 2010. The bank was involved in a massive fraud that channeled close to $900 million worth of funds to well-connected members of the country’s political elite. The money was directed in the form of loans made to individuals and fake companies. Mahmoud Karzai, one of President Hamid Karzai’s elder brothers, was alleged to have benefited from the scam. When word of the scam got out, Afghans made a run on the bank, forcing foreign donors to bail it out to avoid a complete collapse of the country’s economy.
As the House study concluded, corruption in Afghanistan “appears to risk undermining the U.S. strategy for achieving its goals in Afghanistan.”
SECURITY AND ECONOMY
The Afghanistan government has long had problems maintaining peace and social order. A detailed January 2014 assessment commissioned by the U.S. Congress concluded:
The security environment in Afghanistan will become more
challenging after the drawdown of most international forces
in 2014, and … the Taliban insurgency will become a
greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015—2018
timeframe than it is now.
This is a stark assessment for a country which still has a high number of civilian deaths due to the Taliban’s insurgency. Although the experts who produced this report do not despair of success, they nevertheless concluded that Afghan security forces would still have “significant gaps in capability” at the time of the drawdown in 2014.
A key problem in providing security involves the infiltration of security forces by former Taliban members. Reporter and analyst Graeme Smith notes that some members of Afghan’s police force “are just Taliban, who have been recruited to the government side.” If the money runs out, Smith, says, “they can easily go back to the Taliban overnight.” Human Rights Watch has reported that Afghan police forces have had to be completely re-vetted due to numerous abuses. They have also proven unable to prevent Taliban assaults against the civilian population, contributing to widespread perception that they are incapable of providing necessary protections. The Afghan government itself has a low reputation with the people owing to its habit of allowing well-connected politicians, warlords, and businessmen to operate with impunity.
Problems with security and public order make many Afghans nervous about the pending U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014. One survey found that a third of Afghans would leave their country if they could—with many fearful the Taliban will simply return to power once coalition forces are gone. Afghans aren’t the only ones who feel that way. According to an Australian expert:
There is almost universal consensus among the analysts,
humanitarians, and policy-makers with whom I’ve spoken
in recent weeks that security in Afghanistan is likely to
deteriorate over the next two years, that there will be
significant population displacement as a result.
Security problems are also bound up with looming economic issues in Afghanistan. The Afghan government raises around $2 billion in annual revenues, but it is expected that adequate, sustainable security for the country will require more than $7 billion annually.As a whole, Afghanistan boasts a GDP of about $20 billion, and has seen economic growth in recent years as it rebuilds infrastructure. But the extent to which that growth depends on foreign aid is hard to determine, and as aid tapers off in the coming years there will inevitably be a slowdown. The World Bank estimates that 36% of Afghans live in poverty. With numbers like this it’s not hard to see why security issues and fears of the Taliban are so common.
AFGHANISTAN AND ISLAMISM
Coalition forces tossed out the fundamentalist Taliban, but after 12 years of American presence in the country Afghanistan is, if anything, even more religiously conservative than it was before. A Pew poll of Muslim countries found the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq to be among the least liberalized in the world. In Afghanistan, 99% of the population supported the imposition of Sharia law, as compared with more secular countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan, where only 12% and 8% supported Sharia. More than 60% of Afghan Muslims felt Sharia should be applied even to non-Muslim members of the population. The vast majority of Afghan men reported that women should be forced to wear the veil.
Numbers like these suggest that even if the Taliban doesn’t return, whatever government the Afghans do settle on is likely to be backward and Islamist. Nevertheless, the Taliban still leads a powerful insurgency in Afghanistan. There is a real danger that after 13 years, and a heavy price in money and human life, the Taliban might pick up where they left off. How have they managed this?
THE TALIBAN: DRUGS, ABUSE, AND POWER
From captured Taliban fighters, we have learned that the primary source of funding for the organization is the drug trade. The allegedly religious group, despite a declaration from its own leader that opium was haram (religiously unclean) still enacts an Islamic tax (ushr) of 10% on opium farmers. Today, the Taliban earns over $200 million a year from the drug trade.
A detailed study of the Taliban’s connections with the drug trade has found that the organization has emerged as a full-fledged drug cartel in its own right. In addition to collecting their tax, the Taliban also provides seed funds to opium farmers, charges protection money, runs heroin refineries, and engages in kidnapping and smuggling schemes. Through its engagement in drug trafficking, the Taliban is no longer based solely on religious ideology—it is also increasingly driven by the desire for profit.
The one-time “holy warriors” of Afghanistan have proven themselves to be thugs no better than a South American cartel smuggling cocaine. Thanks to the profits involved, criminal activity with a superficial religious face is now pervasive in Afghanistan, and poses a serious threat both to coalition forces and to the Afghan government. One insurgent commander characterized the whole organization in terms of its connection to the drug business, noting that the Taliban had taken over a business formerly run by a variety of independent operators and was now “running the business from top to bottom.”
The Taliban’s interests do not stop at drugs and religion; there is also a well-documented history with the sexual abuse of young boys. This practice actually predates the Taliban, but it has become significant enough among members that leadership had to address it in a set of rules issued to Taliban fighters in 2006. Along with emphasizing the need to kill teachers and destroy anything set up by foreign aid organizations, this list of rules included a command that fighters not take boys without facial hair into their private quarters. This abuse of young boys is not often heard about in Western news outlets. Although it is well known that many Arab/Muslim societies take a dim view of homosexuality—acts of sodomy can earn the death penalty in several Muslim countries—in fact homosexual practices are common, particularly in Afghanistan where sex between men and women is strictly prohibited and controlled. The abuse of boys occurs because they are not recognized as “men” yet. Amnesty International has found such abuse to be almost routine among some Afghan warlords who film their exploits.
One particularly elaborate pattern of pedophilic abuse is so common it even has a name: bacha bazi. A journalist offers the following description:
The adolescent boys who are groomed for sexual relationships with
older men are bought—or, in some instances, kidnapped—from
their families and thrust into a world which strips them of their
masculine identity. These boys are often made to dress as females,
wear makeup, and dance for parties of men. They are expected to
engage in sexual acts with much older suitors, often remaining a
man’s or group’s sexual underling for a protracted period.
The practice was particularly common among the mujahideen warlords who were supported by America during the 1980s struggle with the Soviet Union. Keeping “chai boys” as servants and sexual objects was considered a symbol of power and social status. In one of many bitter ironies of Afghanistan, bacha bazi was outlawed under the Taliban only to return stronger than ever in the lawlessness after the American invasion in 2001. The practice is even deemed permissible under Islam—much more acceptable, in fact, than similar behavior would be if the victims were young women!
The Taliban reserved much of its religious fervor for the abuse and oppression of women.
Public beatings of women, even to the point of death, for such “disciplinary” reasons as wearing clothing that was too bright or laughing too loudly in the vicinity of a member of the Taliban can be daily occurrences in parts of the country under their control. The abuse of women was cited as a reason for the overthrow of the Taliban regime, and it was widely believed that such abuse stopped when they were removed from power. As reports from inside the country show, however, the fact is, “the religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries” still remains.
One region reported a 25% increase in incidents of violence against women in 2013 from the previous year. A high profile instance involved a girl named Halima who was shot to death in public by her own father over allegations of a sexual affair. Local Islamic religious leaders had encouraged the killing. A key imam named Abdul Ghafoor was later arrested for his inappropriate fatwa against Halima. Other religious leaders objected that there had not been enough evidence to convict the girl, and that she had not received a proper Sharia court trial.
Another example involves a ten-year-old girl sold by her father to be the bride of a wealthy man with another wife and six children already. The girl wanted desperately to stay with her family, and even her mother and brothers pleaded with the father to let her stay. But poverty forced the father’s hand—and he had the religious blessing of Islam, which permits girls even as young as ten to be given (even sold) in marriage. Only when her story was picked up by international media and assistance provided to the family was the marriage called off. In the majority of such cases, the wedding would have gone as planned. In 2011, Human Rights Watch in reported on the case of Sahar Gul, a girl who was sold into marriage when she was only 13, then locked in a basement and tortured by her in-laws after resisting their attempts to turn her into a prostitute.
Despite their connection to criminal behavior and unconscionable abuse, the Taliban remains a power to be reckoned with. Taliban insurgents in 2013 have made efforts to regain lost territory, particularly in the south (where the majority of opium growing takes place). A number of observers have expressed deep concern. Notably, last year the outgoing French ambassador to Kabul Bernard Bajolet reported that he regarded the whole Afghan project as vulnerable. Although the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, he observed that much of that fighting was actually being conducted in Pakistan.
The porous border with Pakistan is a notorious problem in getting the upper hand on the Taliban. Insurgent soldiers routinely strike, then disappear over the border, where they easily find support and shelter. While the Pakistani government routinely receives large checks from the U.S. government to help fight terrorism, they remain unable—or unwilling—to reduce assistance to terrorists within their own borders. As was noted in the previous chapter, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban goes back even before they were called the Taliban. As a creature of Pakistan’s own ISI and a former proxy for Pakistani interests, the Taliban seems to enjoy some measure of protection within Pakistani borders. It’s worth noting again that Osama bin Laden himself found shelter there when things got too hot for him in Afghanistan.
Major General Lee Miller, the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan’s southwest region, has expressed serious doubt that the U.S. will be able to drive the Taliban out and keep them out. “If we think the Taliban will be completely destroyed,” he told reporters, “that’s not feasible. They’ll continue to show up.” President Hamid Karzai agrees. In fact, his government has tried to bring the Taliban into the government:
They are Afghans. Where the Afghan president, the Afghan
government can appoint the Taliban to a government job they
are welcome … The return of the Taliban will not undermine
progress. This country needs to have peace.
If even top military and political leaders are saying it, the possibility feared by many looks to be increasingly plausible: when coalition forces withdrawn in 2014 the Taliban will simply return. The situation will be very little different from where it was in the beginning.
THE COSTS OF AFGHANISTAN
In 2013, Afghanistan became the longest onflict in American history. As of June 10, 2014, the U.S. military alone has registered at least 2,187 deaths as a direct result of the conflict in Afghanistan. This number includes those killed in combat as well as deaths resulting from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombings, and accidents. If the number of injured is included, total casualties for Afghanistan alone are in the tens of thousands.
Numbers only tell part of the story, however. Each death, each injury represents a whole extended network of people whose lives have been changed, disrupted, or shattered by conflict. The families of Anne Smedinghoff and Pat Tillman are just two of the thousands directly impacted by Afghanistan. The full extent of the damage wrought by the conflict may not be known for years to come.
Among Afghans, the price has been even steeper. According to the government of Afghanistan, as of March 2014, 13,729 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed over the last thirteen years. Meanwhile, 12,336 civilians have also lost their lives in the long war. Civilian deaths have come from direct combat as well as from IEDs, assassinations, bombings, friendly fire, and encounters with unexploded ordnance. The number of wounded is difficult to assess due to incomplete records, but are likely to be well in excess of the total number killed. Further, with drone strikes and combat with insurgents often crossing borders, the number of civilians killed in Pakistan can also be attributed to the Afghanistan conflict.
Casualties are only part of the picture. Although experts disagree on precise figures, the financial cost of the war is certainly astronomical—and rising. According to one study group, the U.S. has spent as much as $100 billion per year on a country whose total GDP is only a fraction of that:
The U.S. military budget has grown from $370 billion in 2000 to $707
billion in 2011, and the current Middle East war is now the second
most expensive in U.S. history, behind World War II. The [current]
war is more expensive than the Vietnam and Korean wars combined.
It is now the longest in U.S. history.
Another expert from Harvard paints an even grimmer picture:
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most
expensive wars in U.S. history—totaling somewhere between $4
trillion and $6 trillion … The largest portion of that bill is yet to be
paid … The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan
wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.
Given these costs, it seems we must ask ourselves what we have accomplished for the price we have paid. We drove out the Taliban, but they are still supported by our alleged ally in the “War on Terror,” Pakistan. Thanks to this support, as well as enormous benefits from the drug trade, the Taliban remain strong and are poised to make a play to control the country when we withdraw in 2014. We finally killed Osama bin Laden, but he wasn’t even in Afghanistan. Instead, he too was across the border enjoying fine Pakistani hospitality. We brought democracy to Afghanistan, but what kind of democracy is it? The citizenry is even more fundamentalist than before, measurably less liberal and free even as compared to other Islamic states in the world.
After more than 12 years in Afghanistan America needs to look at what has been accomplished there. We went in to remove the Taliban and to find Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden turned out to be in Pakistan, and the removal of the Taliban may end up being temporary. The Afghan people, who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, have suffered greatly. America itself has spent over three-quarters of a trillion dollars and lost more than 2,100 killed and 19,000 injured in Afghanistan alone.
Despite these heavy costs, the Afghan economy remains absolutely reliant on foreign aid, which made up more than 90% of its GDP in 2011 and 2012. The illicit opium trade has made a massive comeback, setting a new record for cultivation in 2013 with more than 200,000 hectares devoted to growing opium poppy. To top it off, President Karzai, the man Americans essentially helped put in power in Afghanistan, is now unwilling to sign a defense pact with America.
To spend so much blood and treasure in Afghanistan with so little to show for it begs the question: Did we properly identify the enemy? Do we know who or what we’re fighting against? Are we fighting a war on “terrorism,” or is it something bigger—something which has no respect for national boundaries and secular governments?
 Quoted in Shoichet, “U.S. diplomat died ‘doing what she loved’ in Afghanistan.”
 Quoted in Druzin, “With little fanfare, Afghanistan War drags into 13th year.”
 Hakim, “Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai says Nato caused ‘great suffering’.”
 Klapper, “Anne Smedinghoff, American Diplomat Killed.”
 White, “Tillman’s Parents Are Critical Of Army.”
 Mills, Karzai: The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan, op. cit.
 Pincus, “Afghan corruption, and how the U.S. facilitates it.”
 Kredo, “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.”
 Tierney et al., Warlord, Inc., 3.
 Arnoldy, “US commission finds widespread corruption.”
 Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012.”
 BBC News, “Kabul Bank fraud profited elite.”
 Tierney, 3.
 Schroden et al., Independent Assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces, 2.
 Ibid, 4.
 Quoted in Druzin, “With little fanfare, Afghanistan War drags into 13th year.”
 Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2013: Afghanistan.”
 LaFranchi, “Why Afghanistan is nervous about the US troop withdrawal.”
 Koser, “Afghanistan: More asylum seekers coming.”
 Sieff and Partlow, “Afghan economy facing serious revenue shortage.”
 World Bank, “Afghanistan.”
 Nelson, “Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan Most Likely to Want Sharia.”
 Moreau, “The Taliban’s New Role as Afghanistan’s Drug Mafia.”
 Peters, How Opium Profits the Taliban, 23, 33.
 Ibid, 1.
 Moreau, “The Taliban’s New Role as Afghanistan’s Drug Mafia.”
 Glazov, “Boys of the Taliban.”
 Mondloch, “An Afghan Tragedy.”
 RAWA, “On the Situation of Afghan Women.”
 Mangal, “Violence against women rises in southeast.”
 AFP, “Afghan father guns down daughter over ‘affair’.”
 UPI, “Afghan Muslim leader arrested for fatwa against girl later executed.”
 Madhok, “10-year-old girl promised in marriage.”
 Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2013: Afghanistan.”
 Quinn and Faiez, “In Afghanistan, 4 U.S. Soldiers Killed.”
 Scoblete, “French Diplomat Warns of Western Failure in Afghanistan.”
 Catholic Online, “American general on Taliban in Afghanistan.”
 Hakim, “Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai says Nato caused ‘great suffering’.”
 Nordland, “War Deaths Top 13,000 in Afghan Security Forces.”
 Afghanistan Study Group, “The Cost of the Afghanistan War.”
 Bilmes, “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan,” 1.
 Jeong, “Afghanistan, After the War Boom.”
 TIME, “Afghanistan’s Record Opium Year.”
 Euronews, “US warns Karzai ‘sign or we leave Afghanistan’.”