Review by David C. Litt
Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, By Douglas A. Wissing. New York: Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN: 978-1616146030, 375 pp. $25.00
Afghanistan was the war of necessity. Our intervention should have been the model of coalition collaboration in support of our common security interests. It should have disrupted, dismantled or defeated entrenched extremism and reversed the tide of injustice inside a failing state. It should have matched global resources with crushing needs.
Instead, Douglas Wissing’s new book Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban shows how the U.S., in trying to dominate, rehabilitate and reconstruct a corrupt, woefully undeveloped country merely by throwing money at it, only exacerbated Afghanistan’s problems: insurgency, narcotics and corruption. In fact, he concludes that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan over the last decade was doomed from the start, in the same way that other nations (including the UK and the Soviet Union) eventually learned in the past. Worse, Mr. Wissing laments that the U.S. did not even try to accomplish its mission seriously because it was distracted by Iraq. Throughout the book he cites anecdote after anecdote, how USG resources were misused and misdirected. To the extent any programs or projects were appropriate, he noted, the resources applied were insufficient. Mr. Wissing’s bottom line, in any event, is that the overall strategy – stabilizing a country through economic, social and political development – was wrong-headed, since the assertion that development produces stability is unproven, he argues. To add insult to injury, the U.S. actors in this drama were themselves incompetent, corrupt, venal, lazy, fat and nubile, with no redeeming qualities and no measurable successes. (The tendentious references to overweight men and young, blond females were repeated, with knowing winks and nods, many times.) Mr. Wissing’s conclusion – stated in the last paragraph of the book – is that the U.S. needs to leave Afghanistan now. And, by the way, in the same paragraph, the U.S. must somehow “prepare to help with the enormous humanitarian crisis that will predictably follow the inevitable fall of the corrupt Kabul government to the Taliban….” A curious epilogue to a book that devotes over 250 pages to show how incapable and incompetent the U.S. has been to do just that.
To his credit, Mr. Wissing’s chapters cover the most important issues for discussion and critique of the Afghanistan policy over the past decade. While his understanding of Afghanistan’s political and economic condition before the Soviet invasion in 1979 is weak, he accurately paints a picture of a half-hearted American strategy, ill conceived and under-resourced, in the early years after 2001. Moreover, he rightly argues that the U.S. was quickly distracted by Iraq. In each chapter, he develops arguable positions on the flaws of our counter-narcotics effort; the weaknesses of USAID over the past two decades; the debates over the merits of counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine in the Afghan context; and the well-documented impact of excessive and uncontrolled international assistance funds on the growth of corruption, criminality and violent extremism (including the Taliban).
The title of the book is somewhat misleading. I expected it to help us understand the processes and channels of U.S. assistance falling into the hands of the Taliban. We know that occurs, I hoped to learn more about how. We do not. We also do not come to learn why, if U.S. officials have “colluded with the Afghan drug trade” since the post-9/11 invasion, opium production only flourishes in the south, but has dried up in many other parts of the country. In fact, “Funding the Enemy” is really more of a broadside against U.S. policy in Afghanistan generally. It describes in great detail and with ample citation from many other works on Afghan policy how this is the wrong war, not merely the misuse of taxpayer funds, as the title might suggest.
In fact almost everything that Mr. Wissing criticizes has been amply covered elsewhere, and by some of the world’s finest journalists, analysts and policy experts. There is no shortage of evidence or criticism of wrongful events in Afghanistan in the broader body of literature available today. Mr. Wissing dwells on them chapter after chapter. He evidences the squabbles among career professionals, short-timer political appointees, military personnel, and the private/voluntary sectors, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. What he obsesses over mostly, however, are cartoonish and prejudicial caricatures of civilian personnel in Kabul, continually labeling all of them as fat or, for the women, nubile – with implicit or explicit references to improper sexual, amoral, or unethical behavior. The impression that he leaves, deliberately or accidentally, is one of constant debauchery, lassitude, and venality. Instances of unethical or illegal behavior over the years in Afghanistan have indeed been recorded in the media. As far as criticizing the motivations of civilians serving in Kabul, it is true the government has provided generous incentives (or “lavish,” depending on where you sit) to attract qualified Americans to serve in Afghanistan. However, to hear Mr. Wissing tell it, everyone – and he suggests that he means every U.S. civilian, with perhaps a few exceptions – is there in the capital only to make obscene amounts of money, and has, by implication, no interest in performing their duties with any degree of selflessness, dedication, and skill. This is ill informed and prejudicial. His language throughout the book is coated with malice, but he reserves his most snide and sarcastic barbs for civilians in Kabul. In my view that is unprofessional for the journalist that he is – let alone the historian that he claims to have been trained as.
I would agree that the overall failure of the U.S. and international intervention in Afghanistan to date is fair judgment by most measures. The available literature similarly documents the difficulties and obstacles that the international community has experienced thus far in stabilizing and rehabilitating the Afghan economy, society and polity. Trying to accomplish these feats with an oversized, over-resourced military force, overabundance of money, and an anemic civilian corps (diplomatic and developmental) to execute reconstruction has been inefficient, if not counter-productive.
However, the lessons learned from these failures should not be merely to pack our bags and go home, full of frustration and despair. Expectations of quick results in Afghanistan (or any broken, poor, illiterate state) are unreasonable. There is a very long row to hoe in Afghanistan. The doctrine that social, political and economic development goes a long way to build more stable and secure societies – especially in formerly failed or failing states – is demonstrably true. Of course, more development money does not necessarily equate to stability; that would indeed be a fatuous assertion. Our challenge however it is to develop the appropriate strategies for achieving our policy goals with an appropriate mix of civilian and military assets; to resource our civilian capabilities properly; to utilize our military capabilities in support of civilians addressing our national security objectives; and to inculcate these changes into our civilian and military personnel through innovative education and training for crisis response. Furthermore, Mr. Wissing’s narrative exemplifies the destructive prejudice many express about the role of the private and voluntary sectors in crisis environments. Rather than bad-mouth those who actually provide the lion’s share of goods and services in crisis-ridden states, we must educate collectively public and private sector actors to remove the biases and misperceptions about each other’s motivations, build trust among us, and develop ways to collaborate across the public and private/voluntary spheres much more effectively.
All of the criticisms Mr. Wissing documents are well known, but are all conveniently now located in one book. That might have been in itself a valuable contribution for those who have never read the many books, newspapers or magazines that disparage U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. However, the frequently sarcastic pitch undermines my faith as a reader in the intellectual integrity of the work. The tone is that of a blogger or editorial writer with an agenda, not of a “historian” seeking “to know the origins of this pernicious system,” as he puts it. Mr. Wissing accompanies his assertions with numerous footnotes from other people’s research. But it is hard to know whether those sources in fact stated what he alleges, and his irksome tone makes me wonder. Plus I have to ask myself: if the Taliban have become so rich and powerful from U.S. assistance, why in the world would they want us to leave?
Mr. Wissing ironically borrows the metaphor from the 1959 Peter Sellers movie to illustrate Afghanistan’s benefiting financially from having gone through a war with the US. Indeed, Funding the Enemy, it turns out, is also very much “The Mouse that Roared.”