At Large

No Sales Days in the Afghan War

The costs of doing business in Afghanistan.

By 11.20.09

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It seems inconceivable that the gorge known as the Khyber Pass which was such a danger to British supply lines in the 19th century days of the Raj is once again just as dangerous in the 21st century. The trucking companies complain they are forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom yearly to Taliban kidnappers of their drivers and their rigs. They say it would be a higher price if they didn't also pay for protection by the Afghan police and Pakistan border guards.

One way or another these amounts and most of the rest of the very expensive NATO presence in Afghanistan are paid for primarily by the American taxpayers and to a lesser, but important, extent by their British counterparts. Herein is the key obstacle to any strategic, and necessarily costly, plan to secure Afghanistan against the Taliban. The multi-billion dollar expenses involved in all aspects of this conflict do not have an ascertainable end point in a war of occupation in which replacement of U.S./UK and other NATO forces is to be accomplished by an as yet mostly nonexistent fully functional Afghan Army.

The principal supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan is the 1,260 mile trip from Karachi, Pakistan to Kabul. The one thing that can be guaranteed regarding this treacherous pathway is that it has brought economic rewards to Pakistan as well as the Taliban. It doesn't take much imagination to see that that the American commitment to Afghanistan is a valuable asset to the economy of the region even as the civilian casualties mount in the battles with the Taliban.

Adding to the complexity of the character of this conflict is the highly questionable trustworthiness of the Pakistan and Afghan police forces, both charged with the responsibility to ensure the protected flow of commerce. One could say, of course, that there is no reason why the gendarmerie shouldn't benefit when everyone else does.

It became apparent last year that transiting through Pakistan on the Karachi-Peshawar-Kabul route via the Khyber Pass was increasingly uneconomic, militarily and commercially. Over 300 petroleum tankers and new military vehicles reportedly were destroyed on this roadway between the end of '08 and the spring of '09. While such losses can be, and were, counted as acceptable combat casualties, when the cost of this destruction is added to insurgent, police, and plain criminal extortion, the economics of maintaining the supply lines to fight the war becomes an influential consideration.

Spreading the wealth as well as seeking a more secure supply route has shifted over a quarter of the ground shipment of NATO military requirements via the north through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While this longer and more expensive route tends to avoid Taliban tithing, it still must take into consideration "transit fees" through tribes in their northern political alliance. It all adds up.

The argument has been presented that, like it or not, the ransoms paid for lives and property actually are a competitively economic way to broadly disperse financial aid. Of course, this is the same argument put forth relative to opium poppy cultivation and trafficking. While this might make sense in regional terms, it certainly doesn't play well in Washington or London -- to say nothing of Peoria.

These tactical factors of the economics of war fighting were not part of the requirements laid on General McChrystal in the preparation of his operational plan for pacification of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Nor was the fact that along with fighting increasing thousands of Taliban, U.S. and British forces will have to deal with the oft times deadly rivalries between and among Pushtun tribes.

This problem of internecine conflict within the Pushtun tribal structure has been a recurring issue since the first American and British special operations forces launched their efforts in 2001 -- and long before. Payoffs early were part and parcel of counter-Taliban operations. This is traditional anti-insurgency tradecraft, but it has grown from specific operational rewards to continuing economic, social and political subsidization.

One of the "new" ideas being considered as a strategic alternative is to pressure provincial leaders into competing for funding rather than having Kabul direct the financing. This is seen as a way to take away the influence of corrupt central government authority while the Afghan Army takes over greater responsibility for security.

Two problems: The Afghan Army is years away from reaching a combat level equal to taking on the Taliban. And who says the provincial governments aren't as corrupt as the one in Kabul?

Bottom line: There's no inexpensive way to fight a war in Afghanistan either in lives or money. 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.