The collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban and subsequent U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 marked the failure of two decades of fighting to root out terrorism and stabilize the country. In the aftermath of that disaster, the United States was quick to blame corrupt Afghan politicians for the Taliban’s return to power.

This narrative, however, misleadingly shifts the attention away from the root causes of the collapse and the failure of the United States to defeat the Taliban. The U.S. military’s strategy of using its financial might as a “weapons system” in the global “war on terror” contributed significantly to its own military failure and to the Afghan Republic’s downfall. By infusing billions of dollars into purchasing security and securing allegiances of local elites, media, civil society, and communities, the United States inadvertently created an ecosystem ripe for rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale.

The United States has a checkered past when it comes to military intervention and corruption. This pattern is notable in places such as South Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Drawing crucial insights from the U.S. military’s approach and the resulting pervasive corruption encountered in Afghanistan, it becomes imperative that we heed these lessons. Now, more than ever, these lessons must resonate in the context of contemporary challenges, notably in Ukraine and other comparable scenarios.

Weaponizing the Financial System 

From the outset, the U.S. approach to the war in Afghanistan was to employ its financial might to secure quick gains. General David Petraeus, the U.S. Armed Forces Commander in Afghanistan and principal architect of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, wrote in 2008 that the military should employ money as a “weapons system” to be used as “ammunition” to undermine the enemy’s financial resources and secure the loyalty of the political elite.  Believing that this approach had worked in Iraq, Petraeus emphasized the need to pump substantial amounts of money into Afghanistan’s polity and economy through diverse programs to win “hearts and minds” of local actors. An official military handbook was then published, explicitly encouraging army commanders to leverage money and military contracts to curry favor with local actors and gain influence.

In the years that followed, international spending and monetary resources became the principal instrument of military power in Afghanistan, taking precedence over direct engagement with the adversary. Indeed, U.S. financial spending eclipsed a staggering 2.3 trillion dollars in Afghanistan over the course of two decades. With little due diligence, effective oversight, or accountability, most of U.S. spending on the war was extravagant, irresponsible, and counterproductive to efforts to stabilize the country and root out terrorism.

The United States’ and its allies’ massive military spending and contracts contributed significantly to already existing corruption in Afghanistan. U.S. military contracts, like the Host Nation Trucking (HNT) agreement — a $2.16 billion contract providing logistical support to NATO — morphed into a mechanism for wielding money as a weapon in rewarding warlords and political elites for security and safety of its logistical supplies. International military spending and aid became the biggest creditors of “rent” for Afghanistan, by large margins. U.S. money permeated all levels of Afghan polity and society, perpetuating an  environment conducive to embezzlement, fraud, and favoritism.

Over the years, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — established in 2008 to provide the U.S. Congress with independent and objective oversight of aid for reconstruction programs — has produced some damning reports on U.S. aid expenditures, excluding military-run programmes and contracting, during this period. An October 2020 SIGAR report published a year before the Afghan government’s collapse estimated that, since the start of the war, the United States had lost a staggering $19 billion in development programs due to waste, fraud, and abuse.

The unprecedented scale and heightened level of corruption witnessed in post-2001 Afghanistan must primarily be attributed to the substantial military expenditure and allocation of development aid by the United States and its allies. As succinctly put by a western journalist, Matthieu Aikins, working in Afghanistan since 2001, “The pervasive web of corruption…has expanded with each bullet fired and meal consumed by soldiers and development workers deployed during the surge.” At the peak of the American military engagement from 2009 to 2012, it had over 800 small, medium, and large military bases scattered around the country serving 120,000 U.S. troops, excluding contractors.

Instead of winning “hearts of minds,” military spending exacerbated socio-economic disparities and divisions within Afghan society. While south and southeast Afghanistan — where most of the insurgency war was concentrated – received substantial aid, more secure areas, including the Central Highlands, received little to nothing. Indeed, many of the poorer areas of rural Afghanistan received only sporadic international aid, primarily in the form of subsistence assistance such as cooking oil or wheat. The message behind this disparity in aid was clear: violence pays off. International aid and U.S. military programs to win hearts and minds further created perverse incentives to sustain violence at the local level — from airline companies and transport and insurance companies to some local communities. An internal Afghan government report found that an Afghan airline was paying the Taliban to deliberately kidnap and harass passengers heading to Taliban provinces to create fear and thereby ensure full-capacity flights. While some became exceptionally rich, the majority of Afghans were anguished in the grip of poverty and adversity. In 2021, after two decades of military intervention and expenditure worth hundreds of billions of dollars, Afghanistan’s poverty rate stood at 55 percent, while the unemployment rate was 24 percent.

Consolidating a Criminal State and a Kleptocracy for Hire 

The United States came to perceive the Afghan state and its elites, including those in civil society, media, and business, as clients in its pursuit of the war on terror. The weaponization of money meant that some of the worst human rights abusers, criminals, and narcotics traffickers became Washington’s partners-in-crime who willingly did the United States’ bidding in advancing its agenda. The magic wand of international money cast a mesmerizing spell over the Afghan state and its political and economic elites. Afghan non-governmental organizations, the media, and political elites unintentionally become entangled in the intricate ecosystem created by American financial flows.

U.S. money and contracts enriched and empowered warlords and infamous militia commanders, who channeled some of these proceeds to the Taliban and local tribes as protection money to deter attacks on NATO convoys. By some estimates, 10 percent of what the United States and its allies spent in Afghanistan went to the Taliban, who then recruited more fighters from poor communities.

U.S. money fashioned the emergence of a “criminal state” as it empowered and enriched a criminal business elite — many of whom were American military subcontractors — along with warlords and predatory elites who seized Afghanistan’s important financial and trade sectors and political institutions. It created a fertile ground for private profiteering, marked by criminality, illicit extortion, and corruption — elements that came to define the operational rules within the Afghan polity. By 2010, an entrenched “kleptocratic class” emerged who had amassed fortunes by associating with and controlling international security and aid assistance, as well as  exploiting global offshore and tax haven systems. The convergence of a criminal business network with warlords and a political class centered in Kabul effectively resulted in state capture.

The Kabul Bank crisis of 2010 exposed the depth of state capture in Afghanistan. Due to fraud, embezzlement, and mismanagement by bank managers, the bank lost $900 million. It was the prime channel for processing the $1.5 billion payrolls for the Afghan security forces and hundreds of thousands of government employees. The bank was considered too big to fail, so it was bailed out by U.S. taxpayer money. Investigations revealed that the bank began as a Ponzi scheme for the Afghan kleptocratic class. Almost all the key Afghan elites and criminal networks had a share in the collapsed Kabul Bank, including then-President Hamid Karzai’s brother and his first vice-president.

By 2019, at least two-thirds of Afghan parliamentarians, including the speaker, deputy speakers, and the Head of the House Committee (except for one), had either questionable direct involvement in the illicit economy or were linked to it through family members. Notably, over 40 parliamentary members were implicated in unlawful activities related to mining sector extraction. The security ministries, which the American military and embassy held huge influence over through money and appointments, were thoroughly captured by corrupt officials — most of whom were American subcontractors. An assessment I conducted in 2019 on the Ministry of Interior revealed how the ministry had become a “honeycomb” for a particular faction of Afghan political elites hailing from a particular province, utilizing it as a conduit for extortion and intimidation against their adversaries.

The Hollowing Out of the Afghan State 

The ill-conceived U.S. strategy of weaponizing its money in the war on terror ultimately undermined the mission it sought to achieve — the establishment of robust Afghan state institutions, democratization, and financial independence. Continued corruption over the years became pervasive and ultimately led to a hollowing out of state institutions, including key security institutions. In 2020, in its assessment of four southern provinces, SIGAR found that between 50% to 70% of personnel that were supposed to be stationed at police facilities and checkpoints were “ghost officers” — deceased officers, while commanding officers and generals collected their paychecks. Their salaries and military logistical allowances were siphoned off by corrupt generals and local officials.

By 2013, corruption had become the biggest existential threat to the Afghan Republic, far more than the threat of the Taliban. As General John Allen warned in his testimony before the U.S. Senate in 2014, seven years before the Republic’s collapse, “For too long, we focused our attention solely on the Taliban…They are an annoyance compared to the scope and the magnitude of corruption with which you must contend.” In spite of the warning, U.S. administrations and officials appeared content to continue with the status quo and let the conflict drift onward. As one analyst succinctly put it, they “avoided accountability and dodged reprisals that could have changed the outcome or shortened the conflict. Instead, they chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift.”

The weaponization of money allowed Afghan political leaders to evade responsibility. In the pursuit of immediate goals, the United States and Afghan elites regrettably sidelined the longer-term imperative of fostering a resilient state structure through comprehensive state-building, yielding a landscape of unstable power centers and elites rather than a cohesive national framework. While presenting the façade and narrative of democratization and women’s rights for its domestic and international consumption, the U.S. sacrificed institutionalization and democratization, as well as the endeavor to combat corruption and uphold justice in the pursuit of political stability and order. Robust institutions capable of upholding the principles of the rule of law, justice, effective governance, and sustainable economic growth did not flourish. Subsequently, the reform-minded liberal forces seeking to establish a more open and inclusive society were disempowered. Trust between the Afghan elites — as well as the historically prominent jihadi-political organizations that sprung to fight the Soviet Union invasion — and society eroded, and the legitimacy of the state was undermined, which the Taliban was able to exploit.

The Collapse of the Republic and Lessons for Others 

The collapse of the Afghan Republic did not emerge from nowhere. It was not months but years in the making, gradual and, most damningly, written over every wall.  It was rooted in the last two decades of flawed U.S. military engagement, especially its strategy of using money as a weapon. The February 2020, U.S.-Taliban deal became the watershed moment.  When it became apparent that the United States would finally exit and the supply of patronage and contracts would drastically be reduced, if not fully pulled off, panic set in among the kleptocratic elites. In other words, when that weapon system was threatened with disarmament, the entire political order collapsed like an “empire of mud,” disintegrating rapidly. The existing fragile political order among Afghan elites and competing centers of power fragmented, alliances were disrupted as local commanders and political clients shifted their allegiance to the Taliban. In May and June 2021, the Afghan army lost one-quarter of the country’s districts to the Taliban, and by mid-July the fall of provinces occurred in rapid succession, one after another.

Evidently, the United States was never the committed partner it claimed to be; its objectives and strategies constantly shifted, sending confusing messages to the Afghan political class and the general population. The veteran U.S. diplomat, Ryan Crocker, described the deal as equivalent to “full surrender.” The deal was essentially a “hasty exit,” which set the terms of full American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban committed to not harboring or supporting international terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Many Afghans continue to question whether the United States simply jumped ship at the last minute, enabling the Taliban takeover in return for certain backchannel guarantees, inked in the secret annex documents of the 2020 Doha Agreement.

The insights drawn from the U.S. military involvement and assistance offer valuable lessons applicable to different contexts such as Ukraine, undergoing analogous aid and support from the United States. Today, Ukraine depends almost entirely on the Western financial aid and the supply of weaponry. The prospects ahead appear considerably bleak for the authorities in Kyiv and their supporters.

The U.S. and European provision of billions of dollars in aid and arms to Ukraine necessitates proactive measures from both donors and recipients.  In particular, Ukrainian leaders must implement stringent oversight mechanisms to enhance transparency and accountability, enabling them to assume greater control over the strategic allocation of funds. Doing so will  not only sustain broader political backing but ensure broader legitimacy of the war effort.

While international assistance can exert a compelling allure, it is imperative for the recipient country to retain a firm grip on the direction and ownership of the war. Striving for less external dependency invariably proves more advantageous, and setting up effective oversight mechanisms with adequate power and resources to monitor the flows and use of money is key.

When it comes to the United States, Afghanistan serves as an example where the attempt to weaponize money has proven ineffective. Military programs aimed at winning “hearts and minds” largely failed. As has been extensively argued, blurring the line between the distinct roles of military operations and humanitarian efforts is seriously counterproductive and undermines the genuine nature of humanitarian aid. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Congress’ oversight body for the U.S. development aid in Afghanistan, had some success. However, for future U.S. interventions, such a body must have buy-in within the administration, be vested with broad authority, and have relevant structure and ample resources to investigate and oversee both developmental and military expenditures.

IMAGE: Men watch as an armed Taliban security personnel rides a vehicle convoy during a parade near the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2023, as the Taliban celebrates the second anniversary of their takeover. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)