Facing reality in Afghanistan

The Associated Press reported last week that a military task force looking into contracting in Afghanistan has concluded that $360 million in U.S. combat support and reconstruction aid has wound up in the hands of criminals, corrupt politicians or the Taliban itself.

If it's "only" $360 million, it's good news. That would represent only a little more than 1 percent of the $31 billion in current contracts reviewed by the Pentagon's "Task Force 2010." If you can do business in Afghanistan and see only 1 percent of your money raked off by the bad guys ("malign actors," the military calls them), you're doing pretty well.

Bribery is a way of life in Afghanistan, a built-in cost of doing business, and today's trusted warlord may be tomorrow's malign actor. Nor is it just warlords and power brokers who cash in. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported last year that in Afghanistan, "the military and police have long taken bribes or charged illegal fees. Like at least two-thirds of the countries in the world, this long has been the way the Afghan government and economy operate."

Task Force 2010 was formed by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan before he was appointed to head the CIA. Part of its job was to try to separate the bribes paid to malign actors with those paid to benign actors. In Afghanistan, the trick is to make sure you're not bribing the wrong people.

The Task Force estimates that a very small share of the $360 million paid to malign actors went to the people who actually are fighting U.S. forces. The Taliban doesn't actually need much money; it is made up of guerrilla fighters who fight close to home. The Pentagon estimates that it costs the United States about $500,000 a year to keep a soldier or Marine in the field; other estimates are twice that high. A rough estimate is that it costs the Taliban about $2,600 a year for each fighter.

The high cost of keeping a U.S. soldier armed and supplied is a big reason "malign actors" were able to rip off U.S. taxpayers for $360 million. The logistics of moving fuel, ammunition, food, water and other supplies to 96,000 troops scattered throughout a heavily mountainous nation are enormously difficult.

The military these days outsources most of its logistics. In Iraq, Halliburton was the prime contractor; it will be recalled that there were some problems with those contracts.

In Afghanistan, the United States decided to try to promote local businesses and gave a big transportation contract to something called Host Nation Trucking. Host Nation hired eight subcontractors. They, in turn, hired dozens of subcontractors. Task Force 2010 reports that about half of the $360 million that was spent on bad actors went to people working under — or demanding bribes from — the Host Nation Trucking contract.

A new trucking contract worth nearly $1 billion was signed early this month. It did not include Host Nation's subcontractors. Even so, it can be assumed that some of that billion dollars will be paid in bribes, in some cases to people who don't like us.

That's the way it works there. We should have known that going in. Instead, we're figuring it out only on the way out.

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