Afghanistan Frontlines: How America’s Cash Boom Fueled Corruption and the Taliban’s Rise

Afghanistan Corruption paved the way for the Taliban's rise. Image courtesy of Jake Simkin. Featuring Afghan National Army.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Soon after the morning prayers and the first hints of daylight on Monday, a statement rang out through the speakers of the dramatically altered northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which fell to the hands of the Taliban on Saturday night.

“If anyone under the name of the Taliban is going to give you a hard time, let us know, and we will take care of them,” the words rang out, marking the first official bid to assure private citizens that everything was alright and not to worry.

Sadly, it was the desperation for some semblance of justice – a concept long lost to the ordinary Afghan people – that partly paved the way for the Taliban to take control. Since the very beginning of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of September 11, corruption has played a systemic role in all levels of the government.

Damning reports from the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) repeatedly raised red flags about the jaw-dropping levels of waste and corruption in Afghanistan. From the tens of thousands of ghost soldiers – troops collecting money although they did not exist – to the hotels that were paid for by the millions and never completed, to the well-funded schools that paid teachers who never showed.

Yet the cash boom brought about by the U.S. occupation continued, with seemingly little effort to stop and those implicated held to little account. Over time and my years reporting on Afghanistan, I observed the way even dedicated Afghans started to seethe in frustration at corruption. 

Author Hollie McKay pictured in Afghanistan.

“I have to pay a policeman every day, five hundred Afghanis ($6.20) to get through the checkpoints to make not much more than that,” a shopkeeper on the edge of Kabul told me a few years ago. “And you wonder why people are against the government?”

From his purview, the temptation to join the Taliban was not necessarily driven by its ideology and strict interpretation of Islam. Instead, it was propelled by anger, by desperation from those who saw gilded palaces brimming with politicians when they worked tirelessly for hours-on-end to still barely be able to feed their family.

The systemic corruption in Afghanistan also seeped directly into the ranks of the military – with the cash-swathed Taliban able to pay off soldiers and security personnel from the top brass down to the lowest levels for insider information – it was the beginning of the end.

According to SIGAR, more than 80 Afghan soldiers were killed in insider attacks this past Spring in an emboldened power play soon after the White House announced plans to exit the country.

And when ordinary people can’t get their paychecks on time, when they feel that the lining of pockets is more important to their government leaders and military commanders than keeping them alive, what kind of country are they fighting for? Where did the billions of U.S. taxpayer funding go?

I write this in a dank room Monday, forbidden to seek fresh air alone, marking my first two days existing under the regime of the Taliban. After that, life – if you can call it that – is relegated to the home. I spotted only one burka-clad woman on the vast and dusty streets, contrasting the hundreds of men moving through on motorcycles and small trucks.

Multiple Afghan government and military personnel – now jobless and running scared – blamed such internal corruption for the rapid collapse of a country plunged into a time akin to an epoch that existed long ago. In the immediate hours after the loss of Mazar, several sources I spoke to explained that the city was handed over by local commanders in secret deals with the Taliban before any of the local warlords or power players were notified.

Moreover, I heard no air support. No trenches had been dug into the ground to prepare for an upcoming onslaught, and no camps had been mobilized for those who would inevitably be displaced in the violence. Is that a government that cared for a real victory?

Anyone of any status on the anti-Taliban side had already left the area before the Masar victory was even made known, leaving scores of the young sitting ducks to a slaughter. All in all, it took just a few hours of the swelling Taliban ranks to charge through holding positions from all directions, entering Masar on bikes with next to no resistance. Doomed Afghan soldiers.

They had tried to fight for a country that did not fight for them. They had tried to fight for a country that would be figuratively erased from the map less than a day later.

Less than a day later, it came an as little surprise to me that President Ghani had cowardly absconded as the Taliban swiftly grasped power sans any struggle. State-led corruption is the root. If ignored for long enough, even the most level-headed among us stand to snap.

“Come to us with your complaints,” another message rang out through Mazar on Monday. “We will fix it.”

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