As the war in Afghanistan settles into its eighth year, it might be worth asking ourselves how the Taliban and Al-Qaeda can possibly remain so strong. Who has been financing these guys for eight years? What if the answer is “us”?
Let’s consider a homeowner in Kabul. Prior to the U.S. invasion, he might have been able to rent out his house for $250 per month. Whatever his political or religious beliefs, he would not have been able to support any cause because he would need all $250 to feed his family. After the U.S. invasion, dozens of U.S., U.N, and NGO groups moved into Kabul, driving up the market rent to over $1,000 per month (due to overwhelming demand, Kabul is now one of the most expensive cities in the world; see this U.N. report showing that the cost of living in Kabul was higher than in New York City in 2005). Our homeowner now has a $750 per month windfall. What will he spend it on? Depending on his feeling about the U.S. occupation, he may well choose to spend some of that to pay the salary of a Taliban fighter.
The U.S. military buys food and supplies in various local markets in Afghanistan. It pays vastly higher prices for these items than it would pay at a Walmart in Kansas. Some of the higher cost translates into profits for Afghans who sympathize or are connected with the Taliban. When the U.S. trucks in supplies, it pays the Taliban directly not to attack the trucks (source). When a fraction of these supplies go missing from U.S. bases, they are sold by Afghans (source), who may turn over a percentage of their profits to fighters against the U.S.
Let’s consider an aid project in a village. We’ve heard that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world (source) and that at least 50 percent of the money that we’re putting in gets siphoned off by various politicians and their cronies (though perhaps not as much as Wall Street, GM, and Chrysler siphoned from U.S. taxpayers!). If half of those siphoned funds end up in the Taliban’s pockets, that’s enough to support a large army.
Given the high cost of supporting a U.S. soldier in the field, the low cost of paying an Afghan fighter, and the level of corruption and anti-U.S. feeling in Afghanistan, it would not be surprising to learn that every soldier we put into Afghanistan supports ten Kalashnikov-toting Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
Assuming that we cannot win a decisive victory when outnumbered by 10:1, this is a simple recipe for an endless self-sustaining war.