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Outside the Box: Americans must learn the fatal mistake they made in Afghanistan at the beginning still lurks at the heart of U.S. foreign policy

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The Afghans were doomed as soon as the United States decided to leave. They knew what the United States never seemed to understand.

Not that the Taliban were invincible. But that their military, the same one the United States had spent so many years and so many billions training, had a fatal flaw: It couldn’t operate without intensive American involvement—and, specifically, the presence of American contractors at every level. As soon as those contractors exited the country, the war was over.

All anyone really had to do was count down the minutes until the Taliban arrived in Kabul. Strangely, however, the role of for-profit contractors in America’s Afghan quagmire is rarely noted. 


Unless Americans are willing to closely examine the parasitic relationship between their government’s foreign policy and the private sector, they will leave Afghanistan not only with their tail between their legs, but an inadequate understanding of why things turned out the way they did. 

Outsourcing national security

But now that the United States exits in defeat, perhaps the curtain can be drawn back. Perhaps the United States can come to see how dangerous it is to outsource national security and foreign policy to actors whose motivations are primarily for-profit. 

Here’s how defense contractors and defense ETFs are trading after Pentagon says 13 U.S. service members were killed in Kabul airport attack

Yet, the U.S. government leaned heavily on them. A little-noticed report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that “between 2002 and 2021, U.S. agencies only directed approximately 12% of reconstruction assistance ‘on-budget,’ through the Afghan government.” Much of the funds instead went to the contractors to do jobs that should have been done by the Afghan government.

In my book “The Broken Contract,” I point out the case of some $28 million spent on Afghan National Army uniforms that were absurdly green in a country that is at most 2% forest cover.  

Another example was the contractor CH2M
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a firm which won $18 million to build an instillation for NATO troops. As is often the case, a subcontractor was hired to perform the actual work. The owner of this company took $2 million with him abroad to build villas. Meanwhile his unpaid workers stole supplies from the base. While this was eventually sorted hundreds of NATO troops were without suitable housing for a year and half, according to Mother Jones, who named the scandal one of the top-10 all time military contracting “boondoggles.” 

Some firms quietly amassed billions more directly. Texas-based Fluor
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reportedly received some $3.8 billion from Defense Department since 2015 alone, making it the largest defense contractor in Afghanistan during that period.   

Inevitable failure

Is it any wonder things turned out the way they did? 

The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has been an embarrassing fiasco. The United States did not fail to execute on a sound plan so much as that plan was never sound in the first place. Most glaringly, almost every scenario the United States could conceive of seemed to imagine that the government in Kabul was not in imminent danger of collapse

Withdrawal, then could proceed in stages, even if those stages were designed absurdly. (The military would exit first—and then the civilians? Yes, you read that correctly.) Yet, as the recent SIGAR report shows, having so badly mismanaged the war and the contractors who often waged it for two decades it is no wonder things have gone terribly wrong.

Indeed in hindsight, the way events played out over the past few weeks seems all but inevitable. 

The United States had constructed an Afghan army that was unable to stand and fight on its own. In the same way that the United States had naively tried to construct a democracy in a country with no tradition of one, the United States had saddled the Afghans with an army they couldn’t maintain. For example, the United States’ belief that the Afghan National Army could hold off the Taliban depended in no small measure on the existence of an Afghan Air Force.

Ghani’s government controlled the skies; what chance did the Taliban have in that scenario? But the Air Force depended on American contractors to keep it flying, and the United States withdrew those contractors, practically overnight, when it rushed out of Bagram Air Force Base this summer, leaving the Afghans stunned and demoralized.

Dependency equals profits

And this brings us to the disheartening, worrying, and infuriating truth: The more the Afghans needed contractors, the more these contractors would earn. Thus they had a vested interest in keeping the Afghans helpless. 

Rather than build an Afghanistan that would prosper on its own, becoming ever more self-sufficient, the entire American war enterprise seems to have been an exercise in manufactured dependency. So long as the money was flowing, this was actually profitable and, in theory, sustainable for the long-term.

After all, American war profiteers and weapons manufacturers made out quite well—mostly at the expense of the American taxpayer. Over a decade ago, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan found that America transferred billions of taxpayer dollars in no-bid contracts to companies that entirely failed to deliver on their promises. To be precise, $30 billion.

That included, for example, almost $300 million for a Kabul power plant that, true to form, Afghan society was unable to operate—leading, we imagine, to a lucrative, long-term opportunity for the foreign contractor that could keep the lights on. Literally. 

Given the deteriorating security situation, however, it is unlikely that any such relationships will continue. In that sense, the overreliance on contractors is self-defeating—the companies cease earning a profit as soon as the security situation no longer permits their operating, and the cessation of their operations confirms a narrative that the Afghan national government is corrupt and incompetent, if not entirely impotent. A narrative the Taliban were only too willing to amplify. 

For decades now, the United States has outsourced domestic governance to unaccountable private contractors, who often overcharge and underdeliver. From the perspective of a participatory democracy, this is unfortunate and alarming. It is the reason why, when America went to war in Afghanistan, and sought to build a nation in its image, it followed those instructions a little too precisely, creating a society that depended on unaccountable private contractors, who earned money even as Americans died.

Since coming to office President Joe Biden’s message to the international community has been “America is back.” But the point is: To do what? Unless Americans are willing to closely examine the parasitic relationship between their government’s foreign policy and the private sector, they will leave Afghanistan not only with their tail between their legs, but an inadequate understanding of why things turned out the way they did. Americans and Afghans both deserve better.

Saqib Qureshi is author of “The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Accountable, Representative, and Less Wasteful.” He is an award-winning author, an expert in democratic policy development and has advised multiple governments. He is the CEO of Toronto-based real-estate firm Building Capital, and previously worked at HSBC Investment Bank and McKinsey & Co. He is currently a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics.

More on Afghanistan from MarketWatch:

Breaking news: Evacuation flights resume in Kabul after deadly bombings

Jeffrey Sachs: After spending trillions of dollars on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, the U.S. has nothing to show for its efforts but blood in the sand

Richard Haass: The U.S. and the world will regret the choice by Trump and Biden to abandon Afghanistan

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