The truth behind the Afghan insurgency

The truth behind the Afghan insurgency


By Ralph Lopez


From the Boston Globe Newspaper, August 17, 2009, page 11

ON A RECENT TRIP to Kabul for our nonprofit organization, Jobs for Afghans, Najim Dost and I made a startling discovery: There is no true Taliban insurgency.


Yes, there is a Taliban leadership, many of whom are “foreigners,’’ meaning, non-Afghans. Yes, there are many fighting-age men who fight because they are paid to do so, by the small cadre of Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders who have plenty of opium money. They fork out the excellent wage in these parts of $8 per day for “insurgent work.’’

But a die-hard, dedicated army of fighters who pledge allegiance to the Taliban ideology and cause? It’s not there. Even Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged last March, “Roughly 70 percent are involved because of the money.’’ And General Karl Eikenberry, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said to Congress in 2007: “Much of the enemy force is drawn from the ranks of unemployed men looking for wages to support their families.’’

The dirty little secret is that the renewed insurgency could have been avoided. The vast majority of Afghans still hate the Taliban. They remember the days of heads and hands getting lopped off in the National Stadium, and men flogged because their beards were not long enough. No one is eager to see them return. But in a nation with 40 percent unemployment, working for the Taliban is the only job in town. As the saying goes, you might not like the work, but that’s who’s hiring.

How did we get to this pass? Fighting a renewed insurgency eight years after the Taliban government was soundly trounced, to the cheers of 90 percent of the population? The first thing that happened was that, out of the relatively small amount of nonmilitary assistance that was sent to rebuild this bombed-out place, almost half wound up as profits for big contractors like Dyncorp, Louis Berger Group, and KBR. They were building substandard schools, roads, and clinics (with no doctors) when what the country needed was jobs, jobs, jobs. Not fancy jobs. Jobs paid in cash by the day or by the week, at less than $10 a day, clearing canals still clogged with debris, digging drainage ditches with shovels along miles of roads, and the countless ways men can be employed to keep their families from semi-starvation.

The UN says 35 percent of Afghans are malnourished. You can’t have business development if you don’t have stability. And you can’t have stability when you have nearly half the work force unemployed. Add to this the Taliban’s willingness to pay $8 a day to those who will pick up a gun, and the renewed insurgency becomes less of a mystery.

There are countless instances of Taliban fighters saying they will trade their guns for a job. What makes this war even more senseless is how little it would cost to provide such jobs, say, for a year, to stabilize the country and allow the free market to flourish. It would cost less than one-tenth of what we are spending now on military operations each year, which is running close to $50 billion. Why is this approach not being talked about in Congress? Call me cynical, but war is profitable. The beauty of cost-plus, no-bid contracting is hard to find in the normal business world.

A widespread, stability-enhancing cash-for-work jobs program, which would save the American taxpayer the hideous cost of war, both human and financial, can work in Afghanistan. We saw such projects on a small scale. Perhaps most telling are stories like Mahmud’s, who told a reporter in Helmand that joining the Taliban gave him a chance to save up enough money to start his own small business, buying goods in Lashkar Gah and selling them in the district “mila’’ or markets. Mahmud said, “Now that I have work, I am not with the Taliban anymore.’’

This situation is the true definition of insanity. Top commander General Stanley McChrystal just said jobs could induce many Taliban to drop their weapons. How many more of our soldiers must die before sense takes hold in the Obama administration?

Ralph Lopez is co-founder of Jobs for Afghans.

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