The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze ◆ by Douglas A. Wissing

Douglas Wissing is a Bloomington-based independent journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, GlobalPost, CNN, and BBC. His most recent book, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, was published by Prometheus Books.  This essay is adapted from his remarks at a Washington, DC press conference with representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) on May 15th, 2013. More info at his website.

The New York Times recently reported the CIA hauled tens of millions of dollars in cash to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s office in suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags. “Ghost money,” they call it. But instead of buying influence, the CIA money fueled corruption and funded double-dealing warlords, kleptocrats—and the Taliban.

When I was in Kabul, my taxi drivers liked to point out a marble-clad four-story mansion owned by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum—a mansion that he reportedly paid for with his $100,000/month CIA payoff. It’s a nice place.

I recently returned from my third set of embeds with US troops in Afghanistan, and I saw firsthand the toxic system that connects ambitious American careerists, for-profit US corporations, corrupt Afghan insiders and the Taliban. The deeply flawed system continues to waste billions of American taxpayer dollars, without accomplishing our military or diplomatic goals–“phantom aid,” development critics call it.

US funds paid for teacher-less schools that were turned into houses and even brothels, falling-down clinics and hospitals, wells that disastrously lowered water tables, vastly expensive generators that have never been installed, fuel for nonexistent Afghan army vehicles. US funds paid for military logistics and development contracts that funnel enormous sums to Taliban fighters—to provide security against themselves.

A recent United Nations Security Council report estimates about 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan contracts funded by the US and other international donors end up in Taliban pockets.


Doug Wissing In Afghanistan

USAID’s five-year, $150 million counter-narcotics program called IDEA-NEW was supposed to help Afghan farmers develop new crops so they wouldn’t grow illegal opium poppy. But instead of weaning Afghan farmers from poppy production, Afghanistan’s opium crop surged 61 percent during the IDEA-NEW program, including opium production in two provinces that were poppy-free when the program began. The UN reports that today Afghanistan still produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium.

The story doesn’t get any better as the projects get smaller. One US military development team told me about a useless animal slaughterhouse in Zabul Province. USAID and the military contracted out the project to an American for-profit development company. The expensive facility was built in the wrong place, which was just as well, because it had  floor tiles with a raised pattern that held blood. “Wall of flies,” the military veterinarian told me with a grimace. The worst part of the story is that this was the second failed slaughterhouse that US officials paid to have built in Qalat City. No one remembered the first one until after the second one had problems. I knew about failed US-financed slaughterhouses, because I’d seen one in Ghazni Province that now serves as the local dog-fighting ring.

Afghanistan is a great gig for the military-industrial and development-industrial complex. Even as the US troop levels are declining, the numbers of private contractors are rising. I’ve embedded three times at one large frontline base, FOB Salerno, in eastern Afghanistan. When I was there this winter, I started laughing when I saw all the civilian contractors. I asked the officer with me where the soldiers had gone. The officer just shrugged.

The enormous US embassy in Kabul is a forest of construction cranes as a gargantuan expansion is running at full steam. Private contractors are building an embassy complex for 2,000 people at a time when drawdowns will probably put embassy staffing levels at 600. One low-level State Department staffer laughingly told me that he was going to stay in Kabul—because he figured he could get a penthouse for his accommodations.

Tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives have been destroyed by this war. The death last month of Anne Smedinghoff, the 25-year-old diplomat killed in Zabul Province by a suicide bomber, particularly touched me. A few months before her death, she facilitated a meeting for me in the US embassy in Kabul with an Afghan Threat Finance Cell official, who railed about Afghan government corruption. Anne Smedinghoff was smart, informed, ambitious and witty.

She wanted to get out in the field, as US officials in the fortress-like embassy are seldom allowed out in Kabul. One of last things she said to me was that on a good day the embassy was like living in a small liberal arts college but on a bad day, it was like being in a maximum-security prison.

Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans were killed and many others wounded while reportedly “lost and walking around” in a wholly insecure environment. American commanders had told me major parts of Zabul were Taliban controlled.

I was on an earlier mission to the same base where Anne Smedinghoff was killed. To negotiate the two miles from another US base, my unit had to travel in a convoy of five armored gun trucks, accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon. I cannot fathom why a group of Americans was out walking in this dangerous situation. Anne Smedinghoff’s death was senseless and unnecessary. It was a stunning breakdown of operational security. With the details of Benghazi still being unveiled, it is important for Americans to learn the whole story about how Anne Smedinghoff came to be in harm’s way.

Secretary of State John Kerry also worked with Anne Smedinghoff at the US embassy in Kabul. Secretary Kerry was also touched by her death.  He spoke about what he called the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of a bright young woman, who believed in diplomacy and western-style education, being killed while carrying books to a school. Anne Smedinghoff was on what the military calls a WHAM—a winning-hearts-and-minds mission. Kerry called it “a confrontation with modernity,” and a “huge challenge,” and said Anne Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.”

When I first embedded in Afghanistan, I didn’t have a preconceived notion of the ground reality—“the ground truth,” as the soldiers call it. If anything, I thought that things couldn’t be as bad as they are. Today I can plainly say that many disillusioned American soldiers and civilians tell me we need to stop this waste of American taxpayer dollars on a war that’s unwinnable. Soldiers told me, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

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Wissing Interviews An Agriculture Consultant

After 12 years of an American intervention that economists say will cost over a trillion dollars, Afghanistan’s government is ranked as the most corrupt on the planet and sixth on the Failed States list. It is near the bottom of the World Bank’s Human Development Index infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, literacy, and electricity usage lists.

Twelve years in, with $100 billion in US development aid, and the country is still a disaster zone. The US is still spending $1.5 billion a week in Afghanistan.

Soldiers tell me, “We’re funding both sides this war.” They talk about “fighting the MAN”—the military acronym for Malign Actors Network. The insurgency continues to grow each year. Attacks are jumping to record levels. Every day American soldiers and civilians face injury and death at the hands of Afghan insurgents, who use mismanaged US logistics and development funds to help fight their war.

I cannot help but recall the remarks that John Kerry made on Capitol Hill in April 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet. Back then, 27-year-old poignantly asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The Ryder ◆ July 2013