If there is any number that could indicate the success or failure of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan since 2001, then it is the following: 54. That is the percentage of Afghans – more than half the population – who were still living below the national poverty line of one US dollar per day in 2018. This new figure is actually higher than the first one available from 2003, following the overthrow of the Taliban regime by Western troops and allied mujahideen forces. At that point, none of the subsequent development aid transfers – now totalling about 100 billion US dollars – had yet taken effect.
There was some positive development for a few years following 2003. That is, if we trust the statistics – which you can’t, given that the Afghan authorities usually try to paint a very rosy picture that Western donors tend to be all too willing to believe.
The three to four million girls who are alleged to be enrolled in school is one example of this. In 2011 – the year that saw the highest development payments to Afghanistan thus far – the rate stood at 35.8 per cent, gains then increasingly undone by the war.
During the same period, the proportion of Afghans living in ‘food insecurity’ (formerly referred to as ‘hunger’) rose from 30.1 to 44.6 per cent. According to the report, this means that many more people are forced to sell their land, take their children out of school to work, or depend on food aid.
At the time, President Ashraf Ghani called the 2011 figures a “disgrace” for his government. Today, he engages in whitewashing just like the rest. During the most recent Afghanistan conference in Geneva, he claimed the figure stood at 40 per cent – even though the latest figures had been jointly published by his own government, the World Bank and the EU in May. Incidentally, the report issued this year had been available for some time before May, but the Afghan government was initially reluctant to release its findings.
The UNHCR points to an “unprecedented number” of internally displaced persons, with 94 per cent of them being displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict – some 316,000 people in 2018 alone. The accumulated figure stood at 1.8 million by mid-2018.
In spite of all this, not all Afghans are worse off than in 2003. Since the year 2001, a new class of extremely rich Afghans has emerged who have benefited either from the billion-dollar contracts with the Western military or embezzled project funds – often both. You can spot them thanks to their real estate – often multimillion-dollar villas, shopping centres and other properties – as well as their frequent visits to Dubai, New York or Munich. The World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan in fact calculated on his blog that the economic growth generated up to 2012 simultaneously led to an increase in poverty rates: “For every 1 percent increase in GDP per capita, poverty increased by 0.2 percent during this period”.
The Afghan war profiteers often regard themselves as above the law. They (or their relatives) either occupy influential government offices or parliamentary seats, or they enjoy protection offered by key political figures. In early December, it took the Afghan police 20 hours to arrest the representative of a major foreign logistics company following a wild shootout at the heart of Kabul. He had refused to give up a residence that he was living in illegally, according to a court ruling. His guards were armed to the teeth and sported official police uniforms. The delinquent’s stepfather is a former Afghan minister of defence whose son is a US passport holder and resides in the exurbs of the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters in Virginia. Back in 2001, he had been a car dealer.
Afghanistan’s nouveaux riches – or their brothers and sons, or sometimes daughters and cousins – also ran in large numbers in the parliamentary elections held on 20 October. Only 35 of them were excluded due to their links to armed groups.
Many Afghans therefore have little faith that their elites have any interest at all in ending the war. A peace deal would not only entail the withdrawal of most Western troops, but, more importantly, put an end to the financial flows. The United States had already significantly reduced payments between 2012 and 2016 – from 13 to 5.6 billion US dollars, according to USAID – when the official end of the ISAF mission was announced. The trend for 2017 and 2018 points to further decreases.
Since 2001 the international community has spent somewhere between 1 and 1.4 trillion US dollars on Afghanistan. However, most of this money never even made it to Afghanistan, as it was spent on paying, arming and equipping Western troops – their number peaked at 140,000 at the end of Obama’s term in office – or was transferred to non-Afghan companies.
Large sums had to be paid in premiums for overseas deployment, the aftercare of soldiers or the families of those non-Afghan soldiers and contractors killed, i.e. the staff of private security firms. According to the ‘Costs of War Project’ at Brown University in the US, their numbers amounted to 7,500. The World Bank estimates that of the money that did make it into Afghanistan, less than one third remained there – and even less in the case of projects overseen by the military.
The most lucrative contracts in Afghanistan concerned troop provisions and security. What has been key to securing such contracts is access to Western contracting authorities, with politicians – or simply English speakers – standing the best chance. Some army interpreters actually became major businessmen. (Most of them, however, remained penniless, and many have had to leave the country as they were persecuted by the Taliban.)
One of the largest single contracts in this regard was the so-called Host Nation Trucking (HNT) contract worth 2.16 billion US dollars per annum, which the Pentagon awarded to eight firms from the US, the Middle East and Afghanistan in 2008. This agreement covered some 70 per cent of the entire logistics for US troops in Afghanistan.
One of the eight companies belonged to Hamed Wardak, an Afghan with US citizenship and son of Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s minister of defence from 2004 to 2012. Wardak’s company received 360 million dollars per year. (While this particular enterprise is no longer a contractor, it has been replaced by one whose Afghan branch is headed by Wardak’s stepbrother Tamim Shansab.) Another of these eight companies belongs to Amanullah Guzar, one of the most important field commanders of the former Northern Alliance in the Kabul area.
In a US Congress report published as far back as 2010, the HNT Contract was described as a “protection racket” which “fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and […] may be a significant source of funding for insurgents”. The involved companies apparently paid the Taliban to protect their trucking convoys to the more than 200 US army bases.
The origins of systemic corruption in Afghanistan are the CIA’s multimillion-dollar payments to a substantial number of warlords, who the secret service recruited as allies for the overthrow of the Taliban regime after 9/11, not least in order to keep the number of US troops and their casualties at a minimum. This has been confirmed in about a dozen memoirs published by involved actors.
The warlords reinvested both this money and their income from drug trafficking. They rearmed their militias, purchased public offices and manipulated elections. Today, all this money has been successfully laundered, and the warlords own entire neighbourhoods. Everyone in Kabul knows the names of the owners of the major hotels, shopping malls and private banks.
Even more resources may have been lost due to capital drain. According to estimates, around 4.5 billion US dollars in cash left the country via Kabul Airport in 2011 alone – mainly to Dubai and Western countries. This represented a perfectly legal practice up to 2012 – even though most of the money was likely obtained illegally. In October 2009, then vice president Ahmad Zia Massud arrived in Dubai with 52 million US dollars.
At the highest level, the family of former president Hamid Karzai (2001–2014) benefited from, among other things, direct payments coming from Western or other secret services. As the New York Times reported in 2010, for example, multimillion-dollar payments from Iran were flown into the country in plastic bags. The Karzai family rented out land in their hometown of Kandahar to the CIA for its bases. A brother of Hamid Karzai constructed and sold luxury apartments on allegedly state-owned land. Another brother, Ahmed Wali, murdered in 2011, was deeply involved in the logistics sector, and also set up a militia that supported US troops in hunting down the Taliban. In his most recent book, ‘Directorate S’, Steve Coll, a journalist for the ‘New Yorker’, describes the business conduct of the Karzai family in southern Afghanistan as a “protection racket” and quotes reports by the US embassy, which state that Wali Karzai was “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker”.
Wali Karzai’s successor, General Abdul Raziq, police chief of Kandahar until recently and likewise a Karzai ally, was in control of the drug trade and other lucrative smuggling activities from Pakistan via the two countries’ second-most important border crossing in Spin Boldak. He would murder his business rivals and later declare them as killed Taliban fighters. Human Rights Watch widely reported on this. Regardless of such reports, US commanders were photographed arm in arm with him time and again. In mid-October 2018, Raziq was assassinated, and the Taliban claimed responsibility, but it could just as well have been a revenge act for one of his countless murders.
Other lucrative business fields shared by government members and the Taliban include the drug business and the mining sector. The output of the opium industry alone – which reached the record figure of 9,000 metric tons in 2017 – was worth between 4.1 and 6.6 billion US dollars, according to the UN. As a result of the war in Afghanistan, production had already risen fifteen-fold between 1979 and 2002, and has since again grown 4.5-fold.
The US-based think tank Brookings Institute estimates that only a quarter of the profits go to the producers, while the lion’s share is divided between the traffickers and money launderers, most of whom operate from outside the country. According to Brookings, the Taliban’s estimated earnings from the opium industry amounted to somewhere between 116 and 184 million US dollars. In other words, most of the drug profits go to the government or its immediate circles, either as direct profits or as protection money.
Parts of the refinement process that turns opium to heroin are said to have been moved to Afghanistan more recently, significantly increasing the profit margins of those involved. Linked to this is the widespread sale of public offices, e.g. in the notoriously corrupt Ministry of the Interior; positions such as district governor or police chief along vital drug trafficking routes are traded in six-digit figures, as is suggested by insiders in Kabul. Here, again, protection money is siphoned off; arrested drug traffickers are frequently able to buy their release – if they are not already collaborating with local power holders in the first place.
In the mining sector, at least half of all mines are outside of the government’s control. In Afghanistan, there are deposits mainly of gold, copper, bauxite for aluminium production, marble and lithium. Its organisation resembles the drug industry: local power holders, government officials and the Taliban split the profits, often based on mutual agreements.
What is more difficult to gauge, then, is the turnover of the international arms and security industry resulting from the Afghanistan war. One of the contractors awarded as part of the multibillion-dollar deals is the Blackwater corporation (although it no longer goes by this name). Its founder Erik Prince, however, currently the executive director of the company Frontier Services Group, is pursuing renewed efforts to convince the Trump administration to privatise the Afghanistan war. He certainly has access to the White House – his sister, billionaire Betsy de Vos, is the US Secretary of Education. However, Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently rejected such a move: “When Americans put their nation's credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea.”
That said, private ‘contractors’ have outnumbered deployed regular US troops in Afghanistan for years. In July 2018, the US Centcom put their number at 26,922, while the US has around 11,000 troops stationed in the country. These contractors provide security services, engage in combat and operate drones, while some are responsible for troop provisions and security. Some are even present inside the command centres of the military and secret services, and, at least during the first few years of the conflict, conducted prisoner torture under their command.
These examples illustrate that the Western governments have purposefully deployed corruption and direct payments as a political tool for purchasing and obtaining loyalties. What has suffered tremendously from this are the efforts at installing democratic institutions in Afghanistan.
Thomas Ruttig is acting co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank based in Kabul and Berlin. Translation and proofreading by Jan-Peter Herrmann and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair.