Catch-22 in Afghanistan
By David Isenberg
It is not every day that an actual war imitates art, so when it does happen people should sit up and take note.
And no, the case in point is not recent events in Iraq, where protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad led the United States to kill Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, leading people to speculate the U.S. is about to create its own "Wag the Dog" scenario.
Instead, the example is Afghanistan. In late December news broke, largely unnoticed, that nearly 400 people who were either wounded while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan or are family members of service members who died in the conflict, sued a group of companies they say helped fund attacks against Americans by making protection payments to the Taliban.
The plaintiffs—385 Americans, including dozens of veterans and members of Gold Star Mothers families—accuse the companies of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act and are seeking damages.
The suit said the funds from the development and private security firms were part of a “common practice by certain corrupt contractors” that sought to save money on security by paying off the Taliban. “Defendants decided that buying off the terrorists was the most efficient way to operate their businesses while managing their own security risks — even though doing so jeopardized other American lives.”
According to the 288-page complaint filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., “Defendants supported the Taliban for a simple reason: Defendants were all large Western companies with lucrative businesses in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and they all paid the Taliban to refrain from attacking their business interests. Those protection payments aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an al-Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans.”
The complaint states that:
Defendants often hired private-security subcontractors with the knowledge that those companies would deliver “security” by paying off the Taliban. Those protection payments were typically structured in one of two ways. The payments often took the form of cash transfers – routed through Afghanistan’s hard-to-trace hawala system – to Taliban agents. Alternatively, the payments sometimes took the form of salary disbursements to Taliban “guards” that Defendants (or their subcontractors) hired directly onto their payroll. Either way, the logic was the same. Defendants decided that buying off the terrorists was the most efficient way to operate their businesses while managing their own security risks – even though doing so jeopardized other American lives.
Nor can the defendants claim they did not know what was going on. The lawsuit notes:
Defendants similarly knew or recklessly disregarded that their payments (including the ones their subcontractors made) helped finance the Taliban’s terrorist campaign in particular. Defendants or their agents often negotiated those payments at meetings with Taliban officials, representing the centralized Taliban Financial Commission, leaving no doubt that the payments were for the Taliban’s benefit. The Taliban also generated documents on official Taliban letterhead – including so-called “Night Letters” and tax receipts – that memorialized the protection racket and further notified Defendants about whom their payments were helping. And the Taliban openly identified anti-American terrorism as the reason it sought such payments. Given the Taliban’s own conduct, companies that chose to comply with its demands understood the consequences. They knew their payments would strengthen the Taliban’s terrorist insurgency, but they decided that their own personal interests were more important.
The art that this reality is imitating is, of course, Joseph Heller’s famous novel Catch-22. Specifically Heller’s infamous character Milo Minderbinder, probably the best known of all fictional profiteers in American literature.
Minerbinder is a satire of the modern businessman, and is the living representation of capitalism, as he has no allegiance to anything or anyone unless earns him money. In the novel he even begins contracting missions for the Germans, fighting on both sides in a battle in Italy, and orders his fleet of aircraft to attack the American base where he lives, killing many American officers and enlisted men. He finally gets court-martialed for treason. However, as his M&M Enterprises proves to be incredibly profitable, he hires an expensive lawyer who is able to convince the court that it was capitalism which made America great, and is absolved only by disclosing his enormous profit to the investigating congressional committee.
His most famous quote is this: “Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole feud to private industry.” As a testament to the presumed utility, indeed superiority, of private sector prowess in war that is, to borrow from MasterCard commercials, priceless.
Not surprisingly, Minderbinder is quite popular in the private military and security (PMSC) contracting world. And PMSCs are very much a part of the American war effort in Afghanistan.
Admittedly, corruption in war zones is not rare—especially in Afghanistan. And this is not the first time PMSCs have been linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The previous time was in late 2009, when two British private security companies made payments to Afghan warlords codenamed 'Mr White' and 'Mr Pink,’ names taken from the movie Reservoir Dogs.
A Senate Armed Services committee report “uncovered evidence of private security contractors funneling U.S. taxpayers dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities. It revealed squandered resources and dangerous failures in contractor performance, including untrained guards, insufficient and unserviceable weapons, unmanned posts, and other shortcomings that directly affect the safety of U.S. Military personnel.”
Bad as that was, it was just two private security companies hiring members of two warlords private armies as staffers. What is going on now is considerably worse. The lawsuit alleges that “companies that worked in war-torn Afghanistan commonly acceded to the Taliban’s mob-style demands for payment in exchange for the guarantee that their businesses interests would not be attacked.”
One unnamed American executive who worked in Afghanistan is quoted in the complaint as saying “We don’t need any security if the payments are made. Nobody f—s with us.”
The payments allegedly climbed as high as 40% of the value of the company’s project and were often facilitated through subcontractors. Given that a single task order from a contract can easily run into the tens of millions of dollars, and that an entire project cost could run into the hundreds of millions, this represents a huge windfall for the Taliban.
Ironically, among the companies named in the lawsuit are the London-headquartered G4S Holdings International and its subsidiaries, and the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida company Centerra Group. Centerra and G4S Holdings’ alleged payments date back to a company called ArmorGroup, which held contracts in Afghanistan beginning in 2007. Centerra is the successor to ArmorGroup North America, which held contracts in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009, while G4S took over what was ArmorGroup International.
ArmorGroup was the company that hired Mr. Pink and Mr. White back in 2009.
Another irony is that last Dec. 27 a U.S. appeals court ruled that DAI Global LLC, another of the defendants named in the suit, will get another chance to seek reimbursement from the federal government for a $2 million fine assessed by Afghanistan in connection with DAI’s private security services in the country.
War profiteering is one thing. Funding the enemy who kills your own troops is quite another. Such a concept is inherently a Catch 22, which in Heller’s world boiled down to a no-win or absurd situation.
As retired U.S. Army officer Danny Sjursen wrote, “what does it say about a war if supplying it, maintaining it, requires paying extortion money to the Taliban, to the purported enemy? What does it say about a war if private corporate contractors are, by default, working at cross-purposes from the American troops? Surely that wasn’t the case on D-Day, in the Second World War, when the U.S. Army fought nazism. Yet here we are.”
If this is not life imitating Joseph Heller’s art, nothing is.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq". His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.