Catch-22 comes to Afghanistan

I've read stories like this before but I think this is worth posting:

Today’s New York Times featured a story by Dexter Filkins that described how millions of dollars the U.S. government is paying Afghan security contractors is very likely going to the Taliban. The long and growing truck convoys from Pakistan that are required to keep U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan supplied have long been suspected of being the objects of a lucrative Taliban protection business. Filkins’ story has now filled in some specifics:

After a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians, two of the biggest private security companies — Watan Risk Management and Compass Security — were banned from escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

The ban took effect on May 14. At 10:30 a.m. that day, a NATO supply convoy rolling through the area came under attack. An Afghan driver and a soldier were killed, and a truck was overturned and burned. Within two weeks, with more than 1,000 trucks sitting stalled on the highway, the Afghan government granted Watan and Compass permission to resume.


Although the investigation is not complete, the officials suspect that at least some of these security companies — many of which have ties to top Afghan officials — are using American money to bribe the Taliban. The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.

The suspicions raise fundamental questions about the conduct of operations here, since the convoys, and the supplies they deliver, are the lifeblood of the war effort.

“We’re funding both sides of the war,” a NATO official in Kabul said.

The Afghan logistics and security contractors (and their associates in the Taliban) did not need to read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or study Lt. Milo Minderbinder’s business methods; in Afghanistan, these arrangements are second nature. And the planned tripling in the U.S. headcount in Afghanistan since early 2009 has resulted in more and longer convoys and thus more money for all sides in the convoy protection business.

One conclusion we might be able to draw from Filkins’ article is that the Taliban are not overly concerned about ISAF’s strategy. Having influence with the Afghan logistics and security firms, the Taliban are opting for the moment to take the bribes and allow the convoys to pass. If the coalition’s military pressure on the Taliban became painful enough, we would expect to see a different Taliban calculation, with more attacks on the convoys, perhaps enough to constrain ISAF operations. If this conclusion is true, it would reveal a broader point – that the Taliban retain the initiative and retain the ability to regulate not only their own operations but ISAF’s as well.

More importantly, Filkins’ story has the potential to damage political support for the war inside the U.S. As stories such as this reinforce the impression (true or not) that the war in Afghanistan is descending into murky corruption, more of the public is likely to throw up its hands in disgust.

Murky corruption, side deals, tangled relationships, and the power of money are all integral elements of irregular warfare. After a decade of renewed experience, many U.S. soldiers are very good at the game. But what remains unknown is whether all of America is ready for the murky deals that irregular warfare requires. America’s adversaries don’t think so, which is why America has found itself on this playing field.

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