With the vague intention of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has mismanaged billions of development dollars, bolstered the drug trade, and dumped untold millions into Taliban hands. In Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, investigative journalist Douglas Wissing mounts a scathing critique of how America lost the war in Afghanistan.
During Wissing’s research and field work in Afghanistan’s warzones, a drumbeat of off-the-record and offhand remarks pointed him to one conclusion: “We blew it.” The sentiment was even blazoned across the U.S. military’s fortifications, as Wissing saw at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam in insurgency-wracked Laghman Province: “I glanced over at a concrete blast barrier while waiting for a helicopter,” Wissing says. “Someone had spray-painted in jagged letters: ‘The GAME. You Lost It.’”
“The sense of the war going terribly wrong had been building for months as I encountered problem after problem in Afghanistan and Washington,” Wissing recalls. “Officially, everyone stayed on message. But the soldiers, contractors and government staffers told another story in the mess halls, barracks and armored vehicles trundling through Taliban country. They laughed that we were financing both sides of this war, and the Taliban was doing a much better job with our money.”
Wissing learned American officials regularly funneled money to opium kingpins and Taliban warlords in a ballooning culture of corruption. Afghan bigwigs skimmed hundreds of millions from lucrative security, aid and logistics contracts, blithely playing both sides as they paid off insurgents. Development goals served twisted ends. In one frontline base in eastern Afghanistan, soldiers intimated to Wissing that U.S. officials in charge of building Afghan schools failed to arrange for teachers, allowing tribesmen to convert the empty new buildings into homes, businesses—even brothels.
“General Petraeus likes to say that money is a weapons system,” Wissing explains. “But there is virtually no data to support a correlation between development aid and reduced insurgency. We’ve paid dearly in blood and treasure for a solution we’ve been asked to take on faith. And it’s failed.”
Wissing’s approach demanded months of hanging out in the peculiar world of American soldiers in the remote mountain operating posts, where mortar attacks punctuate the hiss of the base’s cappuccino maker and the blare of ubiquitous big-screen TVs. Wissing saw how commissary surf-and-turf nights alternated with terrifying close calls with rocket attacks and IEDs. He endured mountain-slope slogs in a hundred-degree heat in fifty pounds of body armor. He shared poignant front-line ceremonies to honor the fallen returning home.
With vivid scenes reminiscent of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Dexter Filken’s Forever War, and Michael Herr’s Vietnam War-era Dispatches, Douglas Wissing’s Funding the Enemy takes the reader down on the ground in frontline Afghanistan. It draws on the voices of hundreds of combat soldiers, ordinary Afghans, private contractors, aid workers, talking heads and government officials. Wissing writes what he saw: U.S. taxpayer dollars flowing into Taliban coffers, courtesy of scandalously mismanaged U.S. development and counterinsurgency programs, to disastrous military and social effect.