Feeding the war machine

US has a vested interest, with its military-industrial complex, to keep conflicts festering globally

It has been a year since the United States and its allies left Afghanistan after a twenty-year occupation which achieved nothing and left the Asian country in ruins.

The occupation has cost the US taxpayer a staggering $2.3 trillion. Money that could have been better spent improving health, education and housing of American citizens rather than destroying another nation. 

The human toll has been enormous with over 250,000 Afghans killed and many more maimed for life either physically or mentally. Meanwhile, the US, its allies and contractors also paid a price, with an estimated 10,000 of their personnel dying from the conflict.

None of this, however, matters to the US, a country whose economy flourishes from war and conflict.

It was former US president and World War II five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in his farewell address to his nation on Jan 17, 1961, that spoke of the US military-industrial complex.

There is another side to the US military-industrial complex that does not get a great deal of attention, and that is the money used to prop up corrupt right-wing regimes around the world and financing their dirty little wars.

The occupation of Afghanistan is a case in point and one which is the focus of a paper entitled “Wartime Contract Spending in Afghanistan Since 2001” that was released last month.

This paper could be easily dismissed by Western commentators as ‘fake news’ but it is the product of the Cost of War Project at Brown University, a prestigious private Ivy League research university in Providence, in the US state of Rhode Island.

Written by senior researcher Heidi Peltier, the findings showed that the Pentagon paid out $108 billion to contractors — most of them US-based — for work in Afghanistan.

Thirteen companies received over $1 billion each while dozens of contracts worth $37 billion in total went to recipients who were not identified in the publicly available contracting databases the researchers used.

It is staggering to think that such huge sums are thrown about with little no or accountability when the planet faces an uncertain future from climate change which recognizes no borders, no governments or religions, and impacts the lives of every single person who inhabits this planet.

Peltier noted that when the Pentagon registers some contract recipients as ‘undisclosed’ or ‘miscellaneous’, it becomes next to impossible to track contract spending, making it difficult to conduct oversight or assess effectiveness and waste.

If a publicly listed company were to conduct its business in this way, shareholders would be demanding the resignation of the board. But this is the US government, and it is beholden to no one.

According to Peltier, the proportion of contracts to ‘undisclosed’ recipients was “much, much higher” in Afghanistan than for US Department of Defense contractors anywhere else in the world.

Why? Peltier suggests this may be due to fears of retaliation against US government contractors in Afghanistan. Even so, as long as the US government allows contractors to be listed as ‘undisclosed’ or ‘miscellaneous’, it prevents transparency and oversight.

So, who are these contractors?

“In short, military contractors provided all types of goods and services that were essential to the US military presence in Afghanistan, including services (such as weapons maintenance and fuel supply) that made the US military dependent on and arguably vulnerable to the performance of contractors,” Peltier said.

Many of these contractors, especially those employed to provide security services, are former military personnel — making them, effectively, highly paid mercenaries.

Billions of dollars are wasted with a large part of it shielded from public scrutiny. To be fair, there have been attempts to make the process more transparent.

A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR — a US government watchdog on Afghan reconstruction — earlier this year said the weak oversight mechanisms have played a role in the “staggering level of fraud and waste.”

SIGAR conservatively estimated that nearly 30 percent of US appropriations for Afghanistan reconstruction from 2009 to 2019 was lost to “waste, fraud, and abuse”.

According to the watchdog, the Department of Defense, or DOD, was responsible for nearly $81.44 billion of the $145.87 billion in reconstruction accounts it reviewed for the 2009-2019 period.

The department had become increasingly reliant on contractors since the events of Sept 11, 2001. 

According to Peltier, spending on contractors since then has increased by 164 percent.

DOD spending on military contracting totalled about $140 billion in 2001, but by 2019 the annual figure had risen to $370 billion, accounting for half of the department’s spending for that year.

While the US economy teeters on the brink of recession, the military-industrial complex is thriving and will continue to thrive as long as there is war and conflict to give it oxygen. 

The author is China Daily’s correspondent based in Sydney. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.