By Sujit Bhar
Here are some sobering bits of information. Afghanistan has now endured two decades of horrifying war and brutality under the Taliban, followed by another two decades of American “occupation”, purportedly to the benefit of the common man, and to help set up a legitimate government. Yet, the country now descends into god knows how many years of complete chaos under the Taliban, again.
Amid this, 90 percent Afghanis still make less than $2 a day. This data was given last year by President Ashraf Ghani, a figure that seems a gross overestimation. A recent study suggests that even in India, during the pandemic in 2021, 23 crore people earned less than Rs 375 per day (these were the people who were able to earn, and the rural figures are far worse). The Afghan economy is still one of the poorest in the world and the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report does not even categorise the country. The UNDP says it, simply, has no data.
All this, after the US spent around $2.26 trillion in two decades. Let that sink in a bit. For comparison, as of 2020, according to World Bank estimates, India’s GDP was $2.623 trillion. Afghanistan is about the size of Somalia or Alberta in Canada and India is 404 percent larger. It has a population of less than 40 million, which makes it as populous as Meghalaya or Bosnia Herzegovina. The rate of US spending per year on this country, we have been made to believe, was $112.5 billion, or Rs 7,87,500 crore, at least. It is a figure so humongous, I think I made a mistake, surely.
Yet, only the capital city of Kabul now, reportedly, has a certain level of schools and colleges, hospitals and other modern amenities—remember, India has invested over $2 billion in Afghanistan in capacity building and in development that will yield long-term benefits. Other countries have pitched in as well. The rest of Afghanistan remains as wild and as underdeveloped as it was before 2001. There are several reports on that.
So what happened to all that money? All of it comes to light after the Americans fled the country, leaving the hapless civilians at the mercy of the Taliban. What happens next is another story, but what has already happened is a scam. The entire Afghanistan “occupation” and “development” story is a big, unalloyed scam. The biggest scamsters were major American corporations, mainly defence equipment manufacturers and contractors and some small-time Afghan crooks and, of course, major banks. Sounds like a big, fat conspiracy theory? It is, while also being true.
Also Read: Reinventing Taliban 2.0
President Joe Biden probably realised the immense drain on the US economy and the fraud that has been perpetrated on the common tax payer for decades and decided that a pull-out was inevitable, especially in view of his own multi-trillion dollar development schemes. His healthcare agenda will have a gross cost of $2.25 trillion plus $800 billion to deficits over a decade, and the President’s plan to revamp prescription drug pricing and raise taxes to finance this will surely not add up. Added to that is his colossal $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment plan, which has been passed by the Senate. It is a huge win-win for Biden, but now he has to find the money to finance both.
Those were good reasons to pull out. But international diplomacy—and in Afghanistan, critically so—needs time. The way Biden went about it was wrong, shameful. Added to that was his complete lack of remorse—he has said that the reason Taliban could gain so much ground so quickly was the fault of the local government. It is not just foolish, but utterly reprehensible. This stain on Biden and on all Americans will not wash, like Saigon never did.
Whatever the political repercussions around the world, this scam—believe me, it is the worst kept secret in DC—might just come out in future audits, if and when documents are declassified. It is unlikely, though that it will be investigated. It is being said loosely that over 70 percent (some say it is nearly 80 percent) of all American monies “spent” in “developing” Afghanistan went straight back to American coffers, specifically to major corporations and contractors in and around the DC area. It is difficult to say if an entire country was used as a rigged roulette table to siphon money from different government budgets to private pockets.
According to estimates made by the Costs of War Project at Brown University (the guys who zeroed in on the $2.26 trillion overall figure), the “biggest chunk—nearly $1 trillion—was consumed by the Overseas Contingency Operations budget for the Department of Defense. The second biggest line item—$530bn—is the estimated interest payments on the money the US government borrowed to fund the war.”
All this, while the Taliban fighters waited patiently in the hills that surround the country, in Tajikistan, and, of course in Pakistan and some in Qatar. As they said: “They (the US) have the watches, but we have the time.”
Take the simple issue of training Afghan policemen. According to a report to the UK’s House of Lords, NATO trainers used to spend about $3.5bn on Afghan police training annually. But that pales before the American cost. It has come to be known that the Barack Obama administration was spending close to $6 billion annually on such training. Who was spending from which budget is unclear and it is not clear if NATO and American spends did overlap. Even if they did, the amount is completely unjustified. And this went on for years on end. In the end, nobody finished their training.
The BBC reported, quoting the same House of Lords report, that it cost The Netherlands more than 5,00,000 euros (£430,000; $670,000) to train each Afghan policeman in one year. This—training 189 police officers—came out of the Dutch defence ministry budget of 2011. The training was conducted in Kunduz, north Afghanistan, and the amount included security for the 225 Dutch trainers deployed. This went on for four years.
India trained several Afghan army officials at the National Defence Academy, making men out of wayward boys. India footed the bill.
So how did the Americans end up spending so much?
THE GHOST ARMY
Quite like pensions in India used to be given to ghost recipients, a report says that nearly 60 percent of the Afghan “armed forces” just did not exist. They were on paper. The indication is that the US officials weren’t really ignorant of this huge defalcation, but when just training 60 percent of a ghost army—as well as police—cost at least $6 billion a year, how much was really embezzled through the entire process of feeding and housing the “army”? Where did all that money go?
The fact is that if Afghan officials were siphoning off money, so were the US defence contractors. The US created many Afghan millionaires and not too few US billionaires.
Let us consider that all the money was spent on training and for upkeep of just 40 percent of the total. A confidential report points out that, despite tall claims made by generals in several reports that the Afghan army they were building would be the best trained and best equipped in the entire region, the Afghan army wasn’t actually good for zit. And desertion levels were high.
PLANES, VEHICLES, AMMO FOR FREE
As they fled, the Americans left behind hundreds of million dollars worth—if not billions—of military helicopters such as US-made Black Hawks and Soviet-made Mi-17s, A-29 attack planes and MD-530 utility helicopters, as well as Humvees, anti-tank personnel carriers, weapons, rocket launchers, tanks, and millions of other small arms. Mountains of ammunition have also been left behind. This would look as a national waste in any audit, especially since America actually did not “lose” the war, not officially, at least. Taliban will have full control of these. They will want to discard their Toyota pickups and land cruisers and move to Humvees now and will soon learn how to fly those sophisticated planes.
But look at the positive side. This is the amount and number of armoury and vehicles and planes that have to be remanufactured by American corporations now. After all, the US Army cannot be left under-equipped. The scam continues.
And, oh yes, there will be no documents left that will talk about the inventory. As the Americans ran to the airport to board flights, columns of smoke were seen rising from US held offices. Documents were shredded, burned and this would include computer hard disks. Data in the cloud would have been deleted by now. There simply cannot be an audit, because there will be no entries to audit.
These things happen in a war.
OLD CONSPIRACY THEORY
And this—this US-Taliban entente—is not new. In 2011, barely a decade after the US entered the country to throw out the Taliban, Vanessa M. Gezari of The New Republic was reporting from near ground zero, at Zormat, “an old trading town in the lap of snow-covered mountains, between Kabul and the Pakistani border,” as she describes it.
Her contact, Hajji Eid Mohammad Youdo, “a respected tribal elder (a former Mujahedin leader and an enemy of the Taliban)” said that he found that he was being hunted by the Americans too. He told the reporter: “There are times when I think the US and the Taliban are working together.”
The basis of such suspicion is this (in Vanessa’s words): “The US military pays Afghan security companies to guard its supply convoys, and some of that money is used to bribe the Taliban for safe passage; in this way, the United States and NATO have been indirectly bankrolling the insurgency for years.”
The fact is that the Afghans have, for years, believed that the US actually supports the Taliban. When the US did not include the Afghans in the peace deal they struck with the Taliban in Doha, these suspicions were set in stone.
A massive 60 percent of the Afghan security personnel, mainly the police, have not been paid for months on end. The US paid the monies and the Afghan officials simply pocketed it. It would be plain stupid to assume that the US officials on ground knew nothing of it. They simply did not care, even if there was no kickback involved.
In the absence of a salary (according to a Norwegian observer) more than 30 percent of Afghan police recruits used their guns to “set up their own private checkpoints to extort travellers”.
How complete was the US blind eye to Afghan activities on American military bases was clear from a report which stated that some soldiers, using the money from US taxpayers, began to sexually abuse children. A New York Times, report has said: “Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population.”
This is a completely perverse practice called “bacha bazi”, where young kids are sodomised. What was the instruction given to American soldiers and marines? Do not intervene. This information was fully available to the Pentagon. The public was lied to.
Afghanistan has been traditionally corrupt. The Afghans are traditionally ungovernable, and society has always been revolting against authority of any kind except those wielding swords or guns. But that does not justify another country using them as pawns.
This was the level of American “involvement” in the “development” of Afghanistan. The US quit the country in a hurry, leaving the people much poorer than they were, but themselves, possibly way richer than they ever dreamt to be.
If the deal with the Taliban can be “worked out”, possibly Al- Qaeda will be back, possibly American soldiers would be back too, for another business meeting.