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November 13, 2009 / jeni

Funding the Taliban: More COIN Heresy in Afghanistan

Many people will tell you that the US finally gets counterinsurgency. It’s difficult, complicated and often demoralising, but we do know what we’re supposed to be doing. There’s loads of little success stories from Iraq and Afghanistan to point to, don’t you know.

And then you read a story like today’s How the US Army Protects Its Trucks: By Paying the Taliban — and it’s hard not to think that at least in Afghanistan, at the broader strategic level, we don’t actually know what we’re doing. A key element of COIN is denying funding to insurgents and, if necessary, providing resources to indigenous counterinsurgent forces. Instead, the Taliban are raking in millions skimmed off of US security contracts — not just because of corruption and cronyism, but as an unintended consequence of rules of engagement and other military/strategic decisions.

It’s not a new story, but the article provides a number of interesting cites and stories. The gist of it is: Coalition forces need to move large amounts of military supplies around the country by truck. Very expensive contracts are arranged with local security and shipping companies, which are usually attached to a warlord or local power broker. But the Taliban and other armed groups control traffic on the roads and must be paid off to allow a convoy through without being attacked. Ka-ching!

In intrastate conflicts, bribing militants at checkpoints is of course nothing new and largely unavoidable. What is striking about the situation in Afghanistan, however, is the sheer amount of money that is likely being funneled into Taliban coffers; the common estimate is that at least 10 percent of foreign contracting money is diverted into payoffs to avoid attacks. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars. In a country as poor as Afghanistan, that kind of money goes a long way.

The military’s hands are basically tied: having been posted to provincial bases, they need their supplies. The manpower (government or private) required to protect convoys simply isn’t there, given the size and terrain of the Afghan battlespace. The corruption networks that feed this process are not merely opportunistic but embedded in current political structures and arrangements. This is a problem that cannot be resolved at the tactical or even operational level, but it does not seem to command a lot of attention at higher levels of decision-making. New approaches that call for concentrating on cities and larger towns and gradually expanding areas of stability, do not really address the problem of convoys being attacked as they travel through empty rural spaces.

It is, however, reassuring that greater attention is being paid to deciphering the sources of Taliban funding and moving to block them. Perhaps uncovering the real size of militant profits from our own contracts will shock people enough to move on this issue.

At any rate, the article also points to a few other issues that come up often in crime-conflict discussions, such as the problems that arise from the personalisation of politics in conflict zones — ie, the destabilising effects of political and economic systems based on individual power politics rather than depersonalised institutions and processes. Meet the Wardaks:

NCL is a licensed security company in Afghanistan. What NCL Holdings is most notable for in Kabul contracting circles, though, is the identity of its chief principal, Hamed Wardak. He is the young American son of Afghan’s current defence minister, General Rahim Wardak, who was a leader of the mujahideen against the Soviets.

Earlier this year, the firm, with no apparent trucking experience, was named as one of the six companies that would handle all the US trucking in Afghanistan, bringing supplies to the web of bases and remote outposts scattered across the country.

At first the contract, for “host nation trucking”, was large but not gargantuan. But over the summer, citing the coming “surge” and a new doctrine, “Money as a weapons system”, the US military expanded the contract 600% for NCL and the five other companies. The contract documentation warns of dire consequences if more is not spent: “Service members will not get the food, water, equipment and ammunition they require.”

Each of the military’s six trucking contracts was bumped up to $360m, or a total of nearly $2.2bn. Put it in this perspective: this single two-year effort to hire Afghan trucks and truckers was worth 10% of the annual Afghan gross domestic product. NCL, the firm run by the defence minister’s well-connected son, had struck pure contracting gold…

The private security industry in Afghanistan has developed quite differently from the private military model seen in Iraq, where firms such as Blackwater were arms of the US government. The industry in Kabul is far more dog-eat-dog. “Every warlord has his security company,” is the way one executive explained it to me.

Apparently, the Afghan intelligence service suggested to the Americans a while back that instead of paying these huge sums of money for warlord protection/militant payoffs, the money be used to put together a professional convoy protection force. According to the article, ‘the suggestion went nowhere’.

An American trucking executive sums it up: ‘The army is basically paying the Taliban not to shoot at them’. And in the process, enriching local warlords who act as middlemen.

Military commanders on the ground don’t like it but have to live with it. But the rest of us should take a step back and ask: what are we really doing here? To me, this is one of the values of raising issues of corruption and criminality in the conflict arena — people can sit around day and night debating political and military strategies, but unless those plans include options for conducting COIN without having to pay the insurgents to let you do it, I’m not sure how much progress we can really expect.

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6 Comments

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  1. Grant / Nov 23 2009 01:44

    Quite seriously, what do you suggest instead? Looking at this I can’t find a solution.

    • jeni / Nov 26 2009 14:53

      I don’t see an obvious solution either, as long as we continue on our current strategic pathway. Do you think the suggestion of developing a professional convoy protection force would work? I think it might have potential, but it would obviously require a serious influx of funding and trainers to put it together — and take time.
      I think time is the operative consideration here. I think we would be doing things very differently if we honestly expected to commit to being in Afghanistan for the next ten years. But the general sense is that we have another year or two to make a difference and then we’re done. So I don’t really see any push to do anything about this problem.

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