The question really should be: “What went wrong in Vietnam, Iraq, the contras in Nicaragua, as well as in Afghanistan?” What is going wrong now with a dozen other seemingly endless interventions in Africa and the Middle East? There are lots of complicated explanations. We made those wars American wars, fought by American troops. We rotated our forces in and out on short tours and no one got enough experience. We had no strategy; immediately after conquering Afghanistan we abandoned our victory to go invade Iraq. We invaded the homes or bombed and killed the very same innocent civilians we purport to protect. We created brave and effective Afghan combat units but set up an Afghan Army which lacked even the most basic logistics and support units; an army that could not function without contractors paid and controlled by the United States. And then we withdrew them without notice. But more than anything else, one factor more than any other caused our defeat in every war from Vietnam to Afghanistan: Corruption.
The Unite States did spend astronomical sums creating, equipping, and training an Afghan Army that collapsed in the face of the Taliban assault. But we ignore the fact that almost all that money was spent enriching corrupt Afghan officials and American private companies. Corruption was not just an Afghan Army with ‘ghost’ rosters and unpaid soldiers led by corrupt senior officers. Instead, corruption – often with a fig leaf of legality – has become endemic to the American way of war.
Our wars from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan became the money tree that enriched the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Eisenhower warned us against. (Read Ike’s farewell address.) In Iraq for example, we gave ‘no-bid cost-plus’ multibillion dollar contracts to a few giant American companies in the lead-up to the invasion. Though narrowly legal (some experts disagree), these contracts smelled to high heaven. One American company contracted to provide logistics imported thousands of American truckdrivers, paid them each $10,000 a month with an equivalent ‘overhead’. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand perfectly competent Iraqi truck drivers – who would have worked for $500 a month without overhead – sat unemployed watching Americans take their jobs. Why would any sensible company do this? Perhaps because their “cost-plus 7%” contracts paid the company $840 a month per American driver instead of the $35 each had they employed Iraqis?
A few personal anecdotes to illustrate the rot: A major American company was granted a cost-plus contract, estimated at $300 million, to survey northern Iraq’s electrical grid preparatory to its repair and rebuilding. The out-going Yugoslav company that[NT1] had built and maintained the Iraqi electric grids offered to sell them all the plans and diagrams they needed for $10 million and toss in a year or so of spare parts. The U.S. company rejected the offer. Why? Do the arithmetic: cost-plus on $300 million versus $10 million. In Afghanistan, American contractors paid their Afghan sub-contractors to pay off the Taliban for safe passage. Each layer of payoff took their cut and then added the bribes (suitably relabeled) to the cost-plus contract. The Reagan administration did much the same, paying drug-dealers to supply the ‘anti-communist’ Nicaraguan contras, themselves a bunch of losers who took our money and never really fought. The 2014 movie Kill the Messenger tells the story better than I can.
With this as an example, why should I have been surprised when I witnessed an American Air Force sergeant demand bribes from a Jordanian friend to authorize the issuance of permits necessary for him to do business? Nor should anyone have been surprised when Iraqi businessmen bribed a U.S. Air Force major for a contract. The bribe came in the form of a $50,000 Mercedes delivered to his wife in Texas. (Why the major thought no one would notice his wife driving a car that cost more than his annual salary boggles the mind.) They just assumed that “sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander.” The fact that we lied to start the war only made the stench stronger.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we empowered diaspora and local kleptocrats, spreading the rot. The President we kept in power in Vietnam took millions with him when he fled in 1975. The Cheney-Rumsfeld neocons destroyed the career of a distinguished American Ambassador who warned them that Ahmad Chalabi, our first choice to govern Iraq under U.S. occupation, was a fugitive from justice in Jordan. In Afghanistan we imported multiple layers of contractors to support first the U.S. military and then the new Afghan Army we tried to create. By the time we left, we had more than 18,000 contractors who did everything from feeding and housing U.S. troops to running PXs and commissaries. Regarding the 350,000 strong-Afghan Army touted by President Biden, a Washington Post investigative report of August 22 estimates that fewer than 150,000 were actually in uniform, most had their salaries months in arrears, and fewer than 35,000 were actually fighting 50,000 Taliban. We knew it then and we know it now. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Google www.sigar.mil please) has documented this sorry tale for years. The moment Trump’s minions signed the American surrender documents in February, the Taliban contacted Afghan Army units and, according to reliable reports, offered to pay Afghan soldiers the arrears if they would just walk away.
It was not always thus. The ‘Katusa’ program — for those old enough to remember – which created the South Korean Armed forces out of whole cloth was a great success. So was the 1947-49 military mission to Greece which produced a resounding success in the Greek civil war. Contractors were few and far between and the U.S. Government was in the knickers of the Greek government to keep corruption, both financial and political, at bay. For details I recommend reading the Congressional Research Service Report on Aid to Greece, available on the internet. Had we followed that example, Afghanistan would have turned out much differently.
What happened to us?