The Afghan Story We Missed While Obsessing Over McChrystal

A convoy of trucks en route to Kabul passes through the village of Sayed Abad in Afghanistan. Joel Saget / AFP-Getty Images

The news that Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a disrespectful loudmouth has consumed the news cycle completely. But had it not been for Michael Hastings's Rolling Stone profile that came out on Tuesday, we might still have been talking about Afghanistan today.

Also on Tuesday, Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) released a blistering report called "Warlord, Inc.," which reveals, in detail, how the logistical support for U.S. troops fighting the war depends on a very dangerous liability: Afghan warlords.

Back in November, an article in The Nation sparked a six-month congressional investigation into how the Department of Defense actually goes about shipping the hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel, food, weapons, and water that it takes to keep U.S. and NATO troops supplied. The result? According to Tierney, the $2.16 billion contract "has fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, [and] corrupt Afghan officials." The money is split mainly among eight Afghan, American, and Middle Eastern companies that then pay off local warlords for the privilege of sending trucks through their districts.

The report says that the Department of Defense has turned a blind eye to the fact that they could be putting money directly into the pockets of insurgents, and when contractors took it upon themselves to raise the haunting possibility, "they were largely met with indifference and inaction" at the Pentagon.

What's most disconcerting about the report is that this tenuous system is actually getting the job done. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it spent massive amounts of money and effort by using troops to protect convoys. Today, the report says, this system is successfully delivering matériel to combat outposts and forward operating bases, "across a difficult and hostile terrain while only rarely needing the assistance of U.S. troops." One could even argue that it's efficient.

Yet there's a huge potential cost for this quick-fix efficiency: first, employing warlords empowers them and gives them legitimacy at the expense of the Afghan government. Second, the rackets they've set up, as the report says, "are a potential source of funding for the Taliban." And third, the entire system is fueling corruption in a country where the absence of rule of law is a top-flight problem.

The bottom line is probably that working with warlords is just an inescapable cost of fighting a war in Afghanistan.