Money as a weapon in Afghanistan. Like strategic bombing, not as effective as theory promised.

Summary:  Money, provided by CIA bagmen to tribal leaders, was our secret weapon to defeat the Taliban in 2001.  Money was supposed to be our decisive weapon in the forging of a new Afghanistan, but the results so far appear disappointing.  This article in the current LRB explains why.

Money as Weapon“, Christopher de Bellaigue, London Review of Books, 14 April 2011 — The full article is for subscribers only.  I recommend subscribing; this is one of the few publications that goes to the top of my reading pile.  Excerpt:

To begin with, the efforts of America and its allies were enthusiastically backed by most Afghans, including many former supporters of the Taliban. Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban foreign minister who became a senior member of the judiciary under Hamid Karzai, told me that ‘in 2002, the Taliban commander Mullah Baradar toured the seminaries of Pakistan, trying to persuade the Talibs who had fled there to join a jihad against the Americans. But no one was interested. They said: “Let the foreigners come and build the country.”’ Since then, a series of blunders have eroded this support.

… Financial aid intended to lift this desperately poor country to prosperity has instead become a symbol of much that has gone wrong. Vast sums have been lost to corruption and inefficiency. Since much of the foreign help is disbursed by the occupying forces, the Taliban and their allies have been able to depict it as an adjunct of an unjust occupation, and thus as tainted. This, combined with the immensely unpopular tactics used by US forces, particularly assassination and night-time raids on private houses, created the conditions necessary for a fresh insurgency.

… Many Afghans dispute {say} that corruption was manageable under the Soviets, hardly existed under the Taliban and has grown exponentially since 2002. … Not only that: the US government was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it.

… Nowadays, it is hard to find an educated Afghan who is not in the pay of foreigners. A civil servant would have to take a lot of bribes to earn the same money. … {I}nefficiency is the outstanding feature of aid to Afghanistan. … In short, ‘aid seems to be losing rather than winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan.’

… A US army handbook, the Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System, lists the many ways aid can be used to defeat ‘targets without creating collateral damage’. One product of this way of thinking is a discretionary fund on which US commanders in Afghanistan can draw to help them win over the inhabitants of newly captured areas. … The fact that this money is accepted, despite Taliban threats, is presented as evidence for America’s success in winning people round. It doesn’t seem a very reliable measure of success, however, and is unlikely to indicate any long-term ideological victory.

… Two US policies co-exist in Afghanistan. One is to stay heavily involved and to change the country for the better, come what may. The other is to get out. The Obama administration is trying to pursue both policies, and according to a truncated timetable devised not in Afghanistan but in America.

In a few years’ time, Petraeus’s valedictory spurt of money and firepower will have ended and American interest in the country will assume more conventional proportions. … Only then will it be possible to assess the success and longevity of Afghanistan’s latest, sclerotic leap to modernity.

About the author

Christopher de Bellaigue’s is the Tehran correspondent for The Economist and is a frequent contributor to other publications.  He has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and South Asia since 1994.  See his Wikipedia entry for details.


  • In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (2005)
  • The Struggle for Iran (2007)
  • Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten People (2009)
  • Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup — to be released in early 2012

Recent Posts about Afghanistan

  1. On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan, 15 September 2010
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  3. More experts pan our Af-Pak war. When will this show close?, 18 September 2010
  4. A book explaining the secrets behind the Obama surge into Afghanistan, 8 October 2010
  5. Kubler-Ross gives us a good perspective on the evolution of the Afghanistan War, 19 October 2010
  6. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again, 20 October 2010
  7. Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?, 25 October 2010
  8. Will the Taliban Give us a Taste of Armageddon?, 26 October 2010
  9. Every day brings new advocacy for war. That’s our America., 1 November 2010
  10. Second thoughts by 2 major boosters of the Af-Pak War (better late than never), 10 December 2010

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