"“A Big Money Funneling Operation” — Afghanistan Vet Reflects On Withdrawal Of US Forces"
by Michael Tracey
Substack (July 14, 2021)
Vehicles left behind after the US forces withdrew from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on July 5, 2021. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
As the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan nears (apparent) completion, images of Bagram Airfield littered with deserted fleets of American-made vehicles — ripe for the taking of whoever ends up with control of that base — have come to exemplify the enormous waste our 20-year intervention is leaving behind. After all, it was US taxpayers, in one way or another, who subsidized the purchase and transport of those vehicles into a remote territory on the other side of the world. So in turn, taxpayers are also underwriting the acquisition of a nice new truck for whichever locals are lucky enough to get first dibs.
What’s usually not appreciated, though, is that this kind of waste was a deeply ingrained feature of the entire war. Which should be blindingly obvious by now — particularly if you paid any attention to the release of the Afghanistan Papers in December 2019 (though it was conveniently drowned out by the first Trump impeachment saga happening at the time.)
But with the withdrawal underway, many inexplicably pro-war pundits are dwelling on the Taliban’s rapid retaking of territory across the country — much of the time without even needing to engage in any combat. This weekend on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd displayed the following scary-looking map produced by a neocon think tank. Red = Taliban!
For more context, I spoke to a US veteran who worked for the Joint Command that oversaw training of Afghan forces during an earlier period of the war. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity — the individual asked to remain anonymous so as to not run the risk of jeopardizing his disability status with the VA. He gives insight as to why the waste — and the inability of US-aligned forces to hold territory — should not be viewed as some aberrational consequence of the current withdrawal, but rather as an intrinsic element of the entire intervention which the withdrawal is merely crystallizing. (Stand-out quotes bolded by me for emphasis.)
I would sit in on staff meetings, because part of my position there was with a Joint Command that was building the Afghan military and police force — the division that I worked with was about training and policy for the Afghan police. And that also included arming and funding them. I don’t think I could overstate that this was a system just basically designed for funneling money and wasting or losing equipment.
I would sit in staff meetings where we would talk about, OK, this month we sent 14 armored Humvees down to Helmand Province for the Border Patrol. And 12 of those 14 Humvees along the way went missing — or, quote unquote, broke down — and were disabled. And that was a regular thing. Like the majority of shit we were adding to the inventory of these Border Patrol units, just wasn’t even making it there.
Let me give you some context on how fucked up the flow of information was. For example, a big part of my job there was tracking the number of police recruits that would complete their training cycle — you know, every month or however many times a month, I was there when there were over a dozen different police training camps throughout the country, and they would have different training cycles for different groups of police. And then I would contact those training facilities and be like, OK, how many police were expected to have graduated this month? How many actually completed training and how many recruits showed up?
And what was funny about that whole system was these training camps were not operated by the US military. They are operated by contractors like MPRI or DynCorp. And those contractors were being hired through the US State Department, even though the DoD was paying for them. But it was the State Department that was hiring them. And then what made it even more ridiculous was the nature of these contracts made it so that the number — the training figure, the number of police that made it through training this month — that number was proprietary to the contractor. So they owned that number — they didn't actually even have to give that to us. I’m a Captain in the Air Force working for the Command, calling and asking, “How many police did you guys train this month?” And they didn’t have to actually tell me that.
When they would give me these figures, I would total them up, because I’m compiling reports that are presumably going back to be presented before Congress to justify expenditures. And I had a Marine Corps major that was part of the Command section that would come in and he’d say, “Hey, we were supposed to cycle through 300 police recruits this month. This says only 150 got through. It’s supposed to be 300.” I’m like, OK, well, it wasn’t 300, it was 150. “Well, can you massage this report so that it says 300?” Basically, can you lie on this report so that it says 300. So just the whole flow of information was not in any way remotely transparent, and it was set up so that really the only people that knew anything for certain were the contractors — the Command staff couldn’t leverage from them accurate information.
I was sitting in on Command staff meetings, where they’re going through weekly reports on distribution of materials. And there were massive discrepancies that nobody was really following up on. The response when I asked about it — because it blew my mind — was just, you know, this is what happens. A lot of this stuff goes missing, a lot of it gets broken.
A big scapegoat was the fact that, when I was there, I think something like 92% of the population was illiterate. [Note from MT: this estimate relates to the Afghan security forces… the overall illiteracy rate was likely not quite that high.] There was a big push — or at least there were people that were pushing — to implement a literacy program for the Afghan police training, because they would get Humvees and they can’t even read the manual on how to maintain these things. So they would break all the time.... and then those would just be written off as a loss. But it’s not like we were going out and collecting the damaged Humvee and then ensuring it was refurbished or dismantled or anything like that. It’s just off the books at that point.
I wasn’t going down and surveilling where a damaged Humvee went, but we’d send a convoy of Humvees down to Lashkar Gah, and only two of them made it there intact. And then nobody would follow up on what happened to the rest of them. And so I’ll say I was speculating that, you know, these are winding up in somebody else’s hands where they’re not supposed to be. That seemed apparent to me and to pretty much everybody I worked with.
The overwhelming impression I got — it didn’t occur to me that we were purposefully delivering this equipment into the hands of al Qaeda, or whatever. But the sense that I got was: Oh, well, the purpose of us being here is to justify pouring mountains of cash into the pockets of contractors — the manufacturers of this equipment. The incentive structure was, “Lose shit, because then it’ll have to be replaced. We’ll have to send more out there.”
I mean, I was not a lawyer. I have no legal expertise. And I was frequently tasked with writing statements of work for contractors who would be setting up training facilities. They would give ridiculous criteria — the bullet points would be fed to me from the contractors. And then those bullet points needed to be condensed enough so that they could all fit on a PowerPoint slide. So they’re basically eliminating specificity from the bullet points that were fed to me by the contractors themselves. I mean, it seemed like the whole thing was just a big setup for contractors to be given license to fleece us. As far as the US military presence there — I just viewed it as a big money funneling operation.