Jadaliyya - Afghanistan in 2021: A Legacy of American Military-Industrial Nepotism

It is glaringly apparent that investments into the war went to secure business opportunities and not peace; the conflict dragged on to continue exploiting the profitable violence.

From my article for Jadaliyya

The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan was an execution of the 2020 peace deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban. The rapid fall of the country to the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee on 16 August 2021 brought an abrupt, ugly and yet unsurprising end to a protracted war that has been the longest in American history.

President Joe Biden has been heavily criticized by liberal and conservative politicians and pundits alike for his decision to end the war that lasted through three administrations. However, it was long overdue and supported by more than two-thirds of the US public. The war cost the lives of 47,245 Afghan civilians and 2,448 US military service members, as well as a military expenditure of $778 billion in tax dollars.

While Biden should be lauded for ending the war, the rhetoric he and supporters of the military pullout have resorted to in order to deflect criticism reveals how little introspection has been done about why the war started and why it ended as it did. In his address on 16 August, Biden lamented the Afghan military and government’s lack of “will to fight for [their] future,” while referencing Afghanistan’s historic title as the “graveyard of empires”—as if that was a sufficient explanation for the US military’s failure to defeat the Taliban and bring security to the government they installed in 2004. Manypunditssupporting Joe Biden’s decision have also drawn on rhetoric that throws the Afghan people under the bus and pigeonholes them as an inherent traditionalist and tribal population incapable of having a functional modern nation-state, thus airbrushing the United States’ historic and recent role out of the picture of the contemporary political landscape of Afghanistan.

The Destabilization of Afghanistan and the Emergence of the Taliban

In 1979, a popular coup led by the socialist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), later romanticized as the Saur Revolution, saw the violent overthrow of the country’s military dictator, Daoud Khan, and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. While the new Afghan government signed a treaty of friendship with the USSR in 1978, it proclaimed independence from Soviet influence and declared its policies to be based on Islamic principles, Afghan nationalism, and socioeconomic justice. Looking to transition from a feudal monarchy to a socialist democracy, the PDPA implemented several social and economic reforms that included equality for women, the legalization of trade unions, and sweeping land reforms. This drew the ire of the old traditionalist feudal class in the countryside, who organized loose Islamic militant groups (known collectively as the mujahidin) and launched a guerrilla war against what they perceived as a secular puppet government of the USSR.

With tension and violence escalating, including inter-party feuds, the PDPA reached out to the United States for support to counterbalance the influence the Soviet Union invariably exerted on the region in hope that this might somehow appease the mujahidin. The US government refused. Instead, seeing an opportunity to destabilize a sovereign socialist government in a geopolitically sensitive region, they launched Operation Cyclone – a CIA program that funded, armed, and trained the disgruntled religious constituencies of the Afghan countryside to combat the Afghan government and, later, the invading Soviet Union. In addition to providing military assistance, the CIA, alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded madrasas (religious schools) in the country and in neighboring Pakistan that taught a fundamentalist Wahhabist interpretation of Islam in order to“stimulate resistance against foreign invasion.”

As the newly formed Democratic Republic struggled to contain the mujahidin, the Soviet government, afraid the PDPA would strike an alliance with the United States or fall to the mujahidin, invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979 to contain the threat of the CIA-backed militant groups. After a nine-year military occupation, the USSR found itself at an invariable stalemate in its conflict with the mujahidin, who Ronald Reagan lauded as freedom fighters. After the Soviet military exited in 1989, the PDPA fell and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established in 1992. The civil war that engulfed the country resembles the events unfolding today.

Throughout the Soviet-Afghan war, Operation Cyclone allowed for the formation of many contemporary Islamic fundamentalist groups who emerged from the conflict. The Taliban, Deobandi fundamentalists, would eventually rise to power within this volatile environment. In 1996, the Taliban renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s six-year rule was marked by despotism, the reversal of social and economic advancements made by the PDPA, and the decision to give refuge to al-Qaʿida.

The 2001 Invasion and the Founding of the Patchwork Republic

The Taliban’s victory was initially welcomed by Washington as an opportunity to build a trans-central Asian pipeline through Afghanistan to access the oil of the Caspian Sea. The Clinton administration and the Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL)began touting the Taliban as the ideal government to cooperate with this pipeline project. “The thing with the Taliban was that they didn’t have a clue about the oil and gas business. The idea was to bring them over, establish some credibility with them that we were a real company,”explained Marty Miller, former vice president of UNOCAL, who hosted a meeting with Taliban representatives in Texas in 1997 to discuss the potential construction of the pipeline.

Despite formal friendly relations and burgeoning business opportunities with the Taliban, the fundamentalist political group was deemed to be too unreliable of a partner by the Clinton administration and UNOCAL for continuing to harbor al-Qaʿida, whose infamous leader Osama bin Laden, once a mujahidin fighter, publicly declared the group’s religious militant opposition to the US presence in the Middle East. It seemed access to the Caspian Sea and the construction of a trans-central Asian oil pipeline were scuppered by the danger posed to an American presence – military or corporate – in Afghanistan by the presence of al-Qaʿida, despite the Taliban government’s cooperation.

After a series of terrorist attacks in East Africa and the Middle East in the late 1990s, al-Qaʿida’s threats to the United States came to fruition with the harrowing events of 11 September 2001. Despite the Taliban government’s offer to capture and extradite Bin Laden, the Bush administration retaliated by invading Afghanistan in October of 2001 with the express aims of defeating al-Qaʿida, capturing Osama bin Laden, and overthrowing the Taliban government.

The Taliban swiftly retreated from the urban cities to the countryside and launched a war of attrition against US and NATO forces as they had done against the USSR in the 1980s. A US-backed interim government was installed in 2002, headed by tribal and religious leader Hamid Karzai, a former UNOCAL consultant and mujahidin fundraiser. Karzai would go on to win the elections of 2004, founding the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Despite the inability to capture Osama bin Laden or completely rout the Taliban, the blow dealt to al-Qaʿida and the installation of a moderate government was initially framed as a successful story of US nation-building akin to the Marshall Plan’s role in post-WWII Europe and Japan.

The military campaign to prop up the Karzai government stalled as the Taliban launched guerrilla warfare from the countryside. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan proved itself to be a barely functional patchwork government of former mujahidin warlords, oligarchic businessmen, and US-aligned elites all held together by a deeply entrenched “self-organized… kleptocracy.”

A 2013 Washington Post report revealed that not only were US military personnel told to look the other way to bribery and other corrupt facets of the Karzai government, but the CIA actively participated in and fostered corruption to streamline security interests. A 2020 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) contains a forensic audit of $63 billion the United States had spent on Afghanistan’s infrastructure since 2002. SIGAR revealed that “19 billion dollars, or 30 percent of the amount reviewed, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” Ryan Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, concluded that “[o]ur biggest single project… may have been the development of mass corruption.”

After 2010, the “Good War” Sours

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama labeled the Iraq War the “dumb war,” opposed to Afghanistan’s “good war.” Despite proclaiming to want to end the war in Afghanistan, the two-term Obama administration ultimately passed it on to a third president. His successor, Donald Trump, who campaigned on ending the Afghanistan war, did a similar U-turn once in office. “My original instinct was to pull out… but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he said only a few months into his presidency.

In 2019, SIGAR released the Afghanistan Papers, a series of government documents and interviews with US military officials, diplomats, and others that revealed that senior US officials sought to mislead the public on the war effort’s success in Afghanistan “despite hard proof to the contrary.” The reality on the ground was that US forces found themselves in a stalemate against the Taliban, while the corruption in the US-backed Afghan government continued to run rampant. “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason,” said one anonymous executive with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Despite the internal recognition of the war effort’s ineffectiveness, the generals at the Pentagon misled the American public and media that progress was being made toward “winning” the conflict. In reality, “there was no campaign plan,” confessed Army Gen. Dan McNeill. “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning means… and nobody could.” This sentiment was shared by hundreds of US military officials and diplomats interviewed by SIGAR.

After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the virtual defeat of al-Qaʿida—the ostensible goals of the Afghanistan war as stated by Bush in 2001 and Biden in –2021—why did the government seek to mislead the public to justify remaining in what was recognized internally as an unwinnable stalemate? While the Afghanistan war in hindsight can be seen as a domestic blunder, the investments were not done haphazardly by the war’s architects.

Malfeasance and Minerals

In today’s geopolitical landscape, Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of the main competitors to US hegemony – China, Russia, and India. It also borders oil-rich nations of interest to the United States, notably Iran and several former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This central positioning has long made Afghanistan the dream site for a strategic central Asian pipeline accessing the oil-rich Caspian Sea which was first proposed thirty years ago and is now scheduled for construction in 2021. But those untapped profits pale in comparison to Afghanistan’s real hidden treasure.

In 2010, an internal Pentagon memo relayed the discovery of nearly $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including the much-coveted lithium used in smartphones and laptop batteries, as well as other crucial minerals used in modern industry such as iron, gold, copper, and cobalt. This memo asserts that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” and “one of the most important mining centers in the world.”

The instability caused by the conflict has prevented these minerals from being extracted. However, the US military-industrial complex had already begun maneuvering to secure the deposits. In 2019, SOS International (SOSi), a Virginia-based company composed of a “complex mishmash of entities that stretch from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates” with extensive links to the US military, was granted exclusive preliminary rights to a major share of Afghanistan’s mines by President Ghani. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discovered that a major stakeholder in SOSi was the president’s brother, Hashmat Ghani. “The U.S. government cannot directly do business with Afghan companies, so it goes through SOSi, a private entity… It’s an open secret that SOSi is essentially a front for the Department of Defense,” said one high-ranking Afghan official who chose to remain anonymous.

The events leading to SOSi obtaining the pole position to secure the mines were put in motion in 2011 by a small Pentagon business development office called the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations. In an effort to simultaneously prop the Karzai government while supporting US business initiatives in Afghanistan, the Task Force aimed to create jobs for locals in key industries such as mining. This was framed as part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy, based on the contention that the provision of jobs would simply stop Afghans from joining the militants.

In 2011, US military officials brought a pro-government militia commander from the eastern province of Kunar, Noor Mohammed, to the Task Force. He headed an illegal operation to extract and sell chromite, a coveted anti-corrosion additive used in stainless steel. Rather than end his operation, the US military assigned the task force to bring Mohammed’s operation into the fold and granted him 3.8 million dollars to expand it.

Despite it being illegal for officials and leaders of government-aligned militias such as Mohammed to hold mineral rights, US military officials recognized that the Kunar operation was more fruitful than any US-financed Afghan government initiative had been. A Special Forces major, Ryan Hartwig, lauded the initiative as a “major success” and a blueprint for the US military-industrial complex moving forward, dismissing Afghan economic regulations as “getting in the way” of accessing the minerals and developing business opportunities.

Eventually, the Kunar operation was shut down by Karzai after it was exposed in an investigation led by the anti-corruption NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Members of the US military and the Task Force office were displeased with the sudden shuttering of their investment. “The only way to realistically economically reintegrate the Taliban back into Afghanistan’s economy is with mining,” said Emily Scott King, the former director of the Task Force’s natural resource group, at a special operations policy forum in Washington, DC in 2019.

After a reshuffling of leadership at the Task Force following the Kunar operation’s closure in 2013, Scott King left her government position. Describing herself as a “mining futurist,” she co-founded Global Venture Consulting, a Florida-based private company offering mining services geared to “emerging and frontier markets” and expertise in “quietly” restarting canceled projects such as the Kunar chromite operation. Soon after, Global Venture found itself contracted to the US military aligned SOSi international to employ Scott King’s familiarity with navigating the minefield of corruption surrounding Afghanistan’s natural resources, which saw SOSi reopen the same Kunar operation shuttered by the Karzai government alongside the other mineral deposits they were granted rights over by Ashraf Ghani.

The case of the Kunar operation and SOSi reveals the extent of the collusion between US military officials and private corporate interests. Money has been pumped into Afghanistan to secure business contracts and access to resources. This reinforces the revelations of the Afghanistan Papers that the stagnation and corruption were a functional feature of the US military’s mission in Afghanistan; the objective was to circumvent Afghan sovereignty and “create small-scale, sustainable mining operations… [that were] a solid fit to our Foreign Internal Defense mission,” as Heinz Dinter, a former Special Forces officer, explained. Using SOSi as a front to secure these ends and execute the unsavory aspects of corporate foreign policy, the US government could continue to administer this minefield of free-market nepotism under the guise of democratic nation-building.

With the fall of the Afghan republic, the mainstream US media, which has been staunchly critical of Biden’s decision to end the war, is already lamenting the loss of minerals. One CNN headline reads, “The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs,” while CNBC is already warning of China looking to “exploit Afghanistan’s rare earth metals.” This rhetoric harkens to the attempts of manufactured consent to justify the US military’s imperialization of Iraq’s oil under the cover of its supposed humanitarian goals that motivated the 2003 invasion.

Aside from Afghanistan’s resources, exploiting the violence of what was deemed “the forever war” has been the most lucrative business to come out of it. The top five biggest US defense contractors who conduct business in Afghanistan—Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics—saw their stocks skyrocket since 2001, with the lowest return of investment standing at 331 percent for Raytheon and the highest at 1,236 percent for Lockheed Martin. Interestingly, these stocks saw a noticeable spike after 2010 – after the mission of the war as defined by Biden in his August 16th address had been completed and during the stagnation period covered in the Afghanistan Papers. It is worth noting that Raytheon senior executive Mark Esper and Lockheed Martin senior executive John Rood were appointed Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, respectively, by the Trump Administration. The Trump administration went on to oversee the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of the war, greater even than the initial 2001 invasion.

Looking into the financial incentives to stay in Afghanistan for the US military and private sector, as well as the damning revelations of the Afghanistan Papers, it is glaringly apparent that investments into the war went to secure business opportunities and not peace; the conflict dragged on to continue exploiting the profitable violence while doing little to achieve stability for the Afghan government installed in 2004 on corrupt yet convenient foundations. With counter-terrorism waning as a valid reason to stay following the defeat of al-Qaʿida and the death of Bin Laden, nation-building to secure the US-friendly Ashraf Ghani government—and by extension, the minerals—became the new foil from 2010 onwards; as long as the US occupation could remain steady, so did the profits for investors in US defense contractors and mining companies.

A New Trajectory for Afghanistan

Biden’s decision to pull out of a war whose only winners have been arms dealers should be praised. However, the callous refusal of US politicians and pundits to confront the realities of the war that has further destabilized Afghanistan is reflected in the haphazard way the exit was executed. The unsurprising result was to leave the Afghan population to be forcibly governed by a far-right fundamentalist group that initially emerged as a consequence of US foreign policy and geopolitical ambitions.

The Pentagon’s projection in 2010 that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” may grimly come true in an unexpected way under a Wahhabi-influenced Taliban government. The evacuation of Afghanistan overseen by the Biden administration included stipulations guaranteeing the security of future US presence in Afghanistan. Given the willingness to conduct business with the Taliban prior to 9/11, and the Taliban’s claim to turn a new “more tolerant” leaf, it is not outside the realm of possibility that formal diplomatic and business relations will be forged between the US and Taliban governments to access the minerals and continue construction of the trans-Central Asian pipeline project.

Going forward, Afghanistan will inevitably find itself embroiled in political machinations on the global stage, with the China-US trade war surely to play a stronger role in the region. Regardless, the exit of a foreign occupying force from Afghanistan presents an opportunity for the Afghan people to take back their historical political trajectory, work within the domestic politics of their society, and seek a route past the deep damage wrought by foreign occupation throughout the decades.