Were US War Profiteers the Ultimate Winners in Battle-Scarred Afghanistan?
This post first appeared on IPS News.
By Thalif Deen
The fast-evolving conflict reached, Kabul, the centre of Afghanistan’s social and political life. Credit: UNAMA/Fardin Waezi
As the 20-year-old occupation of Afghanistan came to an inglorious end last week, there were heavy losses suffered by many– including the United States, the Afghan military forces and the country’s civilian population.
But perhaps there was one undisputed winner in this trillion-dollar extravaganza worthy of a Hollywood block buster: the military-industrial complex which kept feeding American and Afghan fighters in the longest war in US history.
US President Joe Biden, in a statement from the White House last week, was categorically clear: “We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.”
“We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force, something the Taliban doesn’t have. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future.”
“What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future,” he declared.
Of the staggering $1 trillion, a hefty $83 billion was spent on the military, at the rate of over $4.0 billion annually, mostly on arms purchases originating from the US defense industry, plus maintenance, servicing and training.
The Afghan debacle also claimed the lives of 2,400 US soldiers and over 3,800 US private security contractors, plus more than 100,000 Afghan civilians.
Norman Solomon, Executive Director, Institute for Public Accuracy and National Director, RootsAction.org told IPS that in drastically varying degrees, the real losers are everybody but war profiteers.
The U.S. military-industrial complex thrives on the organized killing that we call “war,” and the 20-year war on Afghanistan, waged courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, was a huge boondoggle for a vast number of military contractors and wealthy investors, he pointed out.
The colloquial phrase “making a killing” is all too apt here, he argued, because that’s what many U.S. corporations did over the course of the last two decades as part of the so-called “war on terror” that the U.S. government launched in October 2001 with its attack on Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, “the high-ranking officials and rich looters in the Afghan government who fled the country in recent days were also the big winners.”
“They lived high on the hog for two decades, and now have absconded with what they’ve been able to siphon off and retain as personal wealth, said Solomon author, “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”.
All in all, it’s an unspeakably vile and truly obscene reality that George W. Bush and his bipartisan accomplices in Washington set in motion during the autumn of 2001. They “won” a vastly pernicious game for themselves while so many people have suffered tremendously as a direct result, said Solomon.
“Unfortunately, NATO countries served as enablers in this terrible protracted massacre that ravaged so much of Afghanistan and its people. By any other name, the blend of warfare and purported statecraft that accompanied the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan turned out to be a long-term sadistic exercise in narcissism, stupidity and greed,” he declared.
Since Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, the United States provided over $3.2 billion for the Afghan Air Force (AAF), including nearly $1 billion for equipment and aircraft. Still, equipment, maintenance, logistical difficulties, and defections continued to plague the Air Force, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which prepares reports for members and committees of the US Congress.
The AAF was equipped with about 104 aircraft including four C-130 transport planes and 46 Mi-17 (Russian-made) helicopters. The target size of its fleet was 140 total aircraft. US Defense Department purchases for the AAF of 56 Mi-17s was mostly implemented.
The AAF also took delivery of the first eight out of 20 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft plus MD-530 helicopters, and 3 Cheetah helicopters donated by India—all of which will be inherited by the Taliban.
Asked about winners and losers, Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU), told IPS: “Needless to say, the Taliban are the ultimate winners”.
In the process of the 20-year-old war, however, there’s no doubt that the military-industrial complex certainly benefitted from the ongoing war, which to some extent explains why the US military continued to support the continuation of the war despite the string of mistakes that plagued the US from day one, he said.
He also pointed out that the military-industrial complex also benefitted especially because “traditionally our military likes to win wars rather than end them indecisively or lose them entirely”.
Another winner at this juncture, he said, would be China, which will unquestionably capitalize on the United States’ retreat and will engage the Taliban without demanding any kind of domestic reform.
Unlike the United States, he noted, China never conditions its support to any shift in domestic policies of the countries involved. The biggest loser, however, in this sad situation is obviously the Afghani people, especially girls and women.
“We can only hope that the Taliban modifies its traditional position on restricting girls and women from schools and the workplace, and allow them to seek an education and job opportunities, and become contributors to the welfare and well-being of the country” declared Dr Ben-Meir.
The longstanding 20-year-old battle pitted an estimated 75,000 Taliban fighters against more than 300,000 Afghan forces armed and trained by the US.
As a fighting force, Taliban captured the besieged country without the traditional weapons of war, including sophisticated fighter planes, combat helicopters, missiles or warships, which are an integral part of most militaries engaged in conflicts.
A ragtag guerrilla force, the Taliban depended heavily on small arms, AK-47 assault rifles, artillery, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – and multiple suicide bombers.
The US-trained Afghan military forces were virtually beaten to a standstill or fled their posts abandoning their arms, including US-made M-16 rifles and Humvees which fell into hands of the Taliban.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Full Professor with the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS the US government invested immense time and treasure in its invasion of Afghanistan, a war that should never have been fought.
“US weapons manufacturers have profited from selling weapons that were used in Afghanistan. Yet these weapons suppliers are not held responsible for the use – and abuse – of the weapons they sell’, she noted.
Because of the lack of accountability, they may seem to be the only “winners” on the US side of the conflict. They sell the weapons to the US government without apparent consideration of the risks of doing so, make their money, and go on to the next sales opportunity, said Dr. Goldring, a Visiting Professor of the Practice in Duke University’s Washington DC program.
Yet the arms manufacturers “winning” is at the expense of US military and civilian personnel. Years before the recent collapse of the Afghan government, for example, Taliban forces routinely captured US military equipment and used it against our forces.
With the Afghan government’s fall, some of those weapons are also likely to be sold or given to forces outside Afghanistan, exacerbating the risk of US weapons being used against our own military or civilian personnel, said Dr Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
Meanwhile, an analysis of social media footage, corroborated by the New York Times, shows that since the beginning of the Taliban’s offensive in May, they captured at least 24 of the Afghan Air Force’s roughly 200 aircraft, including U.S.-supplied helicopters and a light attack aircraft.
It is unlikely the Taliban will be able to operate these aircraft without an air force of their own. Most of the abandoned helicopters are damaged or mechanically unable to fly. Experts say the ones that can fly require extensive maintenance and skilled pilots, the Times said.
What may be more advantageous for the Taliban are the hundreds of Humvees and pickup trucks they captured, along with countless caches of weapons and ammunition. In social media videos, Taliban insurgents showed off their newly acquired weapons and vehicles.
Thalif Deen, Senior Editor at the UN Bureau of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.