Thirteen Years Later, What Went Wrong in Afghanistan

"No Good Men Among The Living" by Anand Gopal Metropolitan Books

President Barack Obama has abandoned his aim of ending America's combat role in Afghanistan at the end of this year and has broadened the U.S. military mission to counter the advances of the Taliban. In his latest book, "No Good Men Among the Living," journalist and author Anand Gopal describes where the U.S. went wrong in its -- so far -- thirteen-year occupation of the largely lawless country that once harbored Osama bin Laden.

From its earliest days, the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own. It was reminiscent of the Afghan Communist regime of the 1980s, which lived and died by Moscow's patronage—except that now there was a twist.

Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad (JMK).

In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state.

These were no conditions for nation building. Instead, as journalist Matthieu Aikins has pointed out, a weak Karzai administration found itself competing with strongmen of the countryside for funds. With warlords like JMK developing their own business and patronage relationships with the United States, the tottering government in Kabul had no choice but to enter the game itself. As a result, the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank.

So corrupt, in fact, that nearly every metric that US or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection. "Under Taliban rule, only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with less than 50,000 of them girls," a US forces press release stated in 2011. "Today, under the government of Afghanistan, there are 8.2 million students, of which nearly 40 percent—or 3.2 million—are girls."

But these were largely phantom figures. In the central province of Ghor, for instance, independent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were "not operating at all." Nonetheless, over four thousand teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence.

The story was similar around the country. Traveling through Wardak Province, I came upon one long-abandoned school after another that was still included on the much-touted government tally.

Likewise, US officials often stated that in the post-Taliban era, 85 percent of Afghans had access to health care—which would have made Afghanistan the health care capital of the region. Yet that figure turned out to refer only to the fact that 85 percent of districts had at least one health center, which many Afghans could not access due to distance or insecurity.

"Essentially," journalist Aunohita Mojumdar wrote, "that would be akin to saying that just because every state in the US had a hospital, 100 percent of Americans had access to healthcare." What's more, many of these district health facilities existed only on paper. As with schools, government officials often purloined health care funds, using them to buy influence with local power brokers.

Throughout the south, the US military supported showpiece projects—a new well or a refurbished school, in some cases even whole model villages. But if the south was dotted with Potemkin villages, Afghanistan itself had become a Potemkin country, built almost entirely for show.

As the situation devolved, President Karzai and top officials began pointing fingers bitterly at the United States. Meanwhile, Washington began to view the corrupt central government as the key roadblock to its mission—even though American patronage was ultimately responsible for the mess. In frustration, US officials redoubled their efforts to circumvent Kabul and deal with local power brokers, unwittingly cultivating a new generation of strongmen.

So in warlords like Matiullah Khan and those like him across the country, the American war regenerated itself. The new class of warlords was more sophisticated than their predecessors. Weaned on the Washington way of doing business, their militias were rebranded and formalized as "private security companies," chartered through contracts with Western firms or the US military itself.

Unsurprisingly, this only unleashed further corruption on a scale that dwarfed that of even the most unscrupulous Afghan government agency.

To grasp the enormity of the problem, you need only picture the most elementary aspect of the US presence. At the war's height there were more than four hundred American bases scattered around the country, nestled in craggy valleys and perched on barren hilltops, days apart and reachable only over crumbling, perilous roads like the Uruzgan–Kandahar highway. The United States and other NATO countries contracted out the arduous task of delivering supplies to an array of Western and Afghan companies.

The largest of these deals was a $2.16 billion Department of Defense contract called Host Nation Trucking, split among eight multinational firms. Some of these companies fielded their own fleets of trucks, but others did not even have vehicles and subcontracted out the job to Afghan companies. Either way, the trucking companies then hired local warlords to protect their routes. They, in turn, provided militiamen—"private security guards" in the new parlance—for Matiullah-type fees.

The warlords had outlays of their own, including bribes to Afghan army and police commanders along the route and protection money to the Taliban, all of which guaranteed unfettered passage for the trucks. Upon learning that US tax dollars were going to support warlordism, racketeering, and the insurgency, Congress launched an inquiry and Pentagon officials promised to reexamine the whole system.

But reform was impossible because the new contracting economy was inexorably bound up in the project of counterterrorism. As long as US troops remained on Afghan soil, there was no other option—short of bringing in hundreds of thousands of additional soldiers to take the place of the Western subcontractors, possibly sending the American body count skyrocketing.

The Soviets, too, had outsourced their war. After their 1989 withdrawal, Moscow funded militias to protect the Kabul government against mujahedeen groups in the pay of the CIA, and for the most part the status quo held even without Russian boots on the ground. The Soviet-backed government clung to the cities, while the insurgents claimed the countryside.

But when the two nations cut off funding in 1992, the commanders on both sides—who had men to feed and arm—were forced to "privatize" their activities by robbing homes or setting up checkpoints to shake down travelers. The ensuing turf battles quickly spiraled into all-out civil war.

The American war has renewed this cycle.

In 2013, there were, by some estimates, 60,000 to 80,000 armed private security employees in the country, almost all of them working for Afghan strongmen. Add to this 135,000 Afghan army soldiers, 110,000 police, and tens of thousands of private militiamen working directly for the Afghan government, the US special forces, or the CIA, and you have more than 300,000 armed Afghan men all depending on US patronage.

You can't help but wonder: What happens when the troops leave, the bases close, and the money dries up?

Taken from Anand Gopal's "No Good Men Among the Living" published by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2014 by Anand Gopal.