This summer's fighting season, both the Taliban and US-led NATO forces have been grumbling. The bullets and other supplies both sides need to pursue the war in the style they've grown accustomed to have been more expensive to bring into the country because Pakistan had closed its border to NATO trucking. The US has had the better of it, with the ability to fund more expensive air drops and resupply through Central Asia. But both sides have been unhappy about the state of affairs.
After months of pressure from the US, Pakistan has finally relented. Resupply was allowed to resume on an interim basis a few weeks ago and today, an agreement was signed to allow NATO resupply into Afghanistan through 2015, and the deal has something for everybody. Pakistan receives $1 billion in military aid the US had frozen in retaliation. NATO resupplies its forces in the war zone cheaper, and faster. And the Taliban, which piggybacks off the vast NATO logistics operation to supply its own forces, is back in business.
What? Yes. That's right. It's been public knowledge for years that the Taliban make a mint from extorting protection money from the Afghan and Pakistani truckers who work for NATO. But this fact isn't discussed nearly enough when considering the dynamics of America's longest running war. In an indirect sense, US taxpayers, and to a lesser extent European taxpayers, are paying for the bullets and roadside bombs that target their own soldiers.
But for today, there's delight all around. Richard Hoagland, the deputy US ambassador to Pakistan, called the supply agreement a "demonstration of increased transparency and openness" between the US and Pakistan. A Pakistani defense official described the deal as a "landmark event," according to Agence France-Presse. The Taliban are smiling, too, according to the Associated Press.
"Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble," a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. "Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned." A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies. "We are able to make money in bundles," the commander told the AP by telephone. "Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us."
Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt places on earth, and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending there have been siphoned off over the years by both corrupt locals and international workers. The fact that the Taliban are an ongoing concern, partially thanks to NATO's trucking arrangements, is just part of the problem. A broader one was highlighted yesterday by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which issued a report yesterday titled "Fiscal Year 2011 Afghanistan Infrastructure Projects are Behind Schedule and Lack Adequate Sustainment Plans." The US has allocated nearly $90 billion to Afghan reconstruction efforts in the past decade. The authors write:
More than 10 years after international intervention in Afghanistan, the U.S. government, the international community, and the Afghan government continue to face challenges in implementing programs to build basic infrastructure, particularly those efforts aimed at providing power to the largest cities and most critical areas in Afghanistan. For example, five of seven fiscal year 2011 AIF projects are 6-15 months behind schedule, and most projects may not achieve desired COIN benefits for several years.
"COIN" refers to the counterinsurgency strategy (here's a long report we did on the approach in 2009) that was once presented as the key to winning the war, but the US has quietly been backing away from as it plans to eventually exit the country. The US government is essentially saying that a lynchpin of the approach – creating support for the Afghan government by improving basic service delivery like electricity – won't be effectively in place before US troops, another key part of the strategy, have mostly departed the country.
In fact, SIGAR worries that "in some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support." As for "sustainment," that's the concern that the projects will wither on the vine without intense US financial and managerial involvement (a pretty safe bet in Afghanistan, as the history of US spending in the country in the 1950s makes all too clear). For instance, the report says that the Afghan government electricity company only collects payment for 30 percent of the power supplied in the city of Kandahar.