How Corruption Helped the Taliban’s Victory
One of the excuses President Joe Biden presented for his surrender to the Taliban (or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) during the chaotic and bloody evacuation of American citizens was that the Afghans were not willing to fight for themselves:
“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.”
Absent, however, from Biden’s rhetoric was any mention of U.S. accountability in a war that began when American troops invaded Afghanistan seeking “justice” against al-Qaeda, the accused jihadists for the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The Taliban’s swift conquest is attributable to many factors. But one that crosses multiple administrations yet is getting very little attention right now, or rather being downplayed, is corruption.
According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, since the 2001 invasion, the U.S. government spent $2.26 trillion, which equals to approximately $290 million every day for 7,300 days, which in turn created “9/11 millionaires,” a tiny class of young, ultra-wealthy Afghans who made their fortunes working as contractors for the foreign armies and subsequently helped the Taliban resurrect.
One such example, as per a Pentagon analysis, 40% of the $108 billion that the Defense Department paid to contractors in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012 ended up in the hands of either the Taliban, the violent Islamist Haqqani terror network, organized crime rings, transnational drug traffickers or corrupt Afghan officials.
As Christian Wilkie reported, in a country where roads are often controlled by tribal warlords, transporting necessary and lifesaving supplies overland to U.S. soldiers often demanded paying fees for safe passage to whichever group controls the roads. In areas of the country controlled by the Taliban, this means paying the Taliban.
Any refusal to pay the warlords who controlled the roads would have almost certainly meant grave harm for soldiers and contractors:
“You could be hardcore about stuff and say, ‘We’re not going to pay nobody,’ but, I’m telling you, you were going to get hit on the road,” Rodney Castleman, an American employee of an Afghan trucking company, told The New Yorker.
Just as in Iraq, the government Washington installed in Afghanistan was notoriously unprincipled, and its corruption only became more entrenched and systemic over time. The author of On Corruption in America—and What Is at Stake, Sarah Chayes, who also ran development organizations in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from 2002-2009, stated:
“[H]ow did the Americans ever expect Afghans to keep risking their lives on behalf of a government that had abused them — with Washington’s permission — for decades? There is also another, deeper truth to grasp. The disaster in Afghanistan — and the United States’ complicity in allowing corruption to cripple the Afghan state and make it loathsome to its own people — is not only a failure of U.S. foreign policymaking. It is also a mirror, reflecting back a more florid version of the type of corruption that has long been undermining American democracy, as well.”
In a September 2016 report, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a comprehensive report examining how the U.S. fanned the flames of elite predation and high-level corruption in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion.
The report detailed an investigation that exposed, for example, one of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aides soliciting a bribe in order to block a separate corruption investigation. The aide was released, and the case was eventually dropped — but not before The New York Times revealed that he was secretly on the payroll of the CIA. As the SIGAR report noted, “By the time of [the aide’s] arrest and release, a pattern had been established: High-level Afghan officials who were suspected of corruption often evaded arrest or prosecution.”
What is equally disturbing, is how the corruption not just undermined the very areas that Western politicians sustained as the successes of the occupation, like education and healthcare, but it fleeced the recipients, too.
The education system had been riddled with schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper — teachers earning only one-tenth the salaries of better-connected Afghans working for foreign NGOs and contractors.. Afghan pharmacies were and are still stocked with fake, expired or low quality medicines, many smuggled in from neighboring Pakistan.
The ongoing violence of American occupation and the corruption of the U.S.-backed government boosted popular support for the Taliban, especially in rural areas where three quarters of Afghans live — they were essentially frustrated with, as Afghans viewed it, American “imperialist” suppression. Researchers Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and Nicolas J. S. Davies, writer for Consortium News stated that the Taliban takeover should not have come as a surprise due to the intractable poverty as people naturally questioned how their occupation by wealthy countries like the U.S. and its Western allies could leave them in such abject poverty and without any recourse to their own government officials.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.