Americans watched in horror as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in a matter of days, despite the lives and treasure spent there over twenty years. Most of the criticism of the disastrous end to the Afghanistan War and the rest of the post-9/11 wars has focused on the four presidents who helmed them. There is plenty of blame to lay at their feet because each contributed to those winless wars.
President George W. Bush decided to keep American forces in Afghanistan after achieving the mission’s primary security objective of disrupting al Qaeda. President Barack Obama doubled down on the war by surging troops into the country and expanding the nation-building effort. President Donald Trump’s peace deal set the stage for the August defeat by providing the Taliban with a timeline for its eventual takeover.
And while an end to the Afghanistan War was long overdue, President Joe Biden’s mishandling of the withdrawal completed the debacle, leaving many Americans and Afghans who helped us little time or security to flee the county.
History will judge all of them, but the inquiry should not stop with them. Almost as soon as the terrorists attacked the United States in September 2001, the military-industrial-congressional complex flew into action to get a piece of the lucrative wartime pie. In just one egregious example less than a month after the attacks, then-Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) cited the attacks as a reason to move forward with a deeply flawed aerial tanker leasing scheme with Boeing. The defense contractors, the military leaders who wanted to work for them, and the members of Congress who took campaign contributions from them were all just as much responsible for creating the conditions that led to our defeat as any occupant of the Oval Office.
Another American president would have seen this coming. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us to guard ourselves “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence” by the military-industrial complex during his 1961 farewell address.
“Afghanistan and the other post-9/11 wars prove that winning or losing isn’t terribly relevant to the military-industrial-congressional complex as long as the various actors find a way to reap enormous financial benefits.”
The military-industrial-congressional complex is the political economy created by the tightly integrated web of defense contractors, military service bureaucracies, and politicians. It evolved and came into its own over the 40-year span of the first Cold War by consolidating influence and always striving to capture a larger slice of the treasury’s tax revenues. The complex suddenly found itself at loose ends when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, but the attacks of 9/11 threw it a timely lifeline — one it seized with gusto.
Had the complex actually produced useful results, this evolution might be a little more palatable. Unfortunately, the post-9/11 wars, and especially the war in Afghanistan, showed us how the complex’s self-serving nature worked to prolong the conflicts and contributed to our defeats. Afghanistan and the other post-9/11 wars prove that winning or losing isn’t terribly relevant to the military-industrial-congressional complex as long as the various actors find a way to reap enormous financial benefits.
Military Leaders Afraid to Admit Failure
Over the course of the 20 years of war just in Afghanistan, top military commanders made so many rosy pronouncements about our progress that Americans grew inured to them. Here is a brief sample:
- “Afghanistan is a place where military and economic, political and diplomatic activity at both the national level of the United States and also the international level came together in a way that, over the three years that we’ve been operating there, has shown interesting progress.” General John Abizaid, February 2005.
- “[I]n the face of an enemy willing to carry out the most barbaric of attacks, progress has been achieved in some critical areas, and we are poised to realize more.” General David Petraeus, July 2010.
- “I think we are on the road to winning.” General John Allen, February 2013.
- “I would say overall our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory. I can elaborate on that with you later, but thus far, in keeping with the campaign plan that I outlined, we have seen the Afghans successfully defend each of these areas, largely by taking offensive operations against the enemy, and the Taliban has not yet been able to realize any of their territorial ambitions this year.” General John Nicholson, July 2016.
“I don’t know how many generals I heard who have talked about — we were turning the corner.” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said of these flag-officer assessments. “We turned the corner so many times we looked like a top just spinning out of control.”
The Project On Government Oversight’s Mark Thompson listened to the same people make the same pronouncements for years, both as a reporter for Time magazine and after he came to POGO. “One can only take the constant spinning for so long before becoming dizzy and cynical over can-do officers who can’t-do — and lack the guts to say it can’t be done given the tools they’ve been given,” he wrote in 2017.
As the generals uttered these statements, the Taliban continued its advance across Afghanistan, capturing more and more territory.
Their rosy statements about the outlook of the conflict fit within a pattern of behavior we have unfortunately come to expect from our senior military leaders. A general or admiral at the three- or four-star rank is at the end of a long career, so it’s only natural for them to consider what will come next. For most of them, the next step is to leverage the position and trust they have achieved through their government service to secure a lucrative private sector position. This is fine if the positions they choose don’t create conflicts of interest. They could use the skills they developed through their service to work in any industry that doesn’t trade on their connections, but all too often they choose to enter the defense industry, where it’s who they know — not what they know — that matters.
“We turned the corner so many times we looked like a top just spinning out of control.”John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction
The eight generals who headed the war in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2018 now serve on the boards of more than 20 corporations, many of which deal directly with the Pentagon, according to disclosures reviewed by the Washington Post. In addition to the six-figure, taxpayer-funded retirement they receive, these former commanders rake in millions of dollars as consultants, as corporate board members, and in speaking fees. Opportunities like that are not presented to those who contradict the DC consensus.
Retired Marine colonel and current Center for Defense Information military advisory board member G.I. Wilson explained in 2011 why military officials in high positions would be reluctant to tell the truth about Iraq and Afghanistan. “Nurturing the Pentagon money flow and the domestic political environment that supports it while influencing their chosen successors — often their former aides — to keep the money spigots open profoundly changes the message the retired generals and colonels send to the listening audience,” he wrote.
Servicemembers within the ranks were reluctant to speak publicly about the war for fear of hurting their careers. The Washington Post obtained what have become known as the Afghanistan Papers and published them in 2019, and those published dispatches revealed just how many people involved in the war knew the U.S. was fighting a lost cause. Even more revealing was that most only agreed to speak candidly with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction if they were assured anonymity; that is a clear demonstration that dissent would not be tolerated. A few people in the military made public their concerns about the war’s progress anyway. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, now a member of POGO’s military advisory board, took his concerns to Congress in 2012, but he was a rare exception and was treated like a pariah for doing so.
The kind of self-serving behavior senior military leaders engage in to remain members in good standing within the complex is eroding the trust that rank-and-file servicemembers place in them. A Marine lieutenant colonel posted a controversial video lambasting leadership, calling for the generals involved to be held accountable for the Afghanistan debacle. He ended up being charged with several crimes and spent more than a week in the brig before pleading guilty and ultimately receiving a light sentence. While questions about the propriety of his actions and methods remain, the response he received should serve as a wake-up call for the star-spangled brass. A quick scroll through any social media posting about that story shows many people criticizing the way he delivered the message, some who take exception to the extremes to which it ventures, as well as a great deal of support and praise for his actions. What you don’t find are many people defending Pentagon leadership. That lack of trust in their leaders should concern all Americans.
Contractors at the Spigot
While the United States didn’t win in Iraq or Afghanistan, American defense contractors and their shareholders certainly did. The American people paid approximately $14 trillion to fight the post-9/11 wars, about half of which went into the coffers of defense contractors who either supplied weapons and equipment or provided services to support the war and reconstruction efforts. William Hartung at the Center for International Policy recently reported that just the top five U.S. Pentagon contractors — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman — received more than $2.1 trillion worth of contracts during the post-9/11 spending surge. During the same time, the big five spent $1.1 billion for lobbyists, meaning that for every dollar they spent lobbying, they received a staggering $1,909 in taxpayer funds in return.
Building weapons is only one way to make money from a war. Nearly as lucrative are the various service contracts awarded to support and often supplement the services overseas. The U.S. military now outsources many functions uniformed servicemembers once performed. The sprawling bases set up to support the wars were full of civilian contractors building facilities, delivering mail, operating dining facilities, and providing general logistical support. According to Bloomberg, the Pentagon spent $107.9 billion for service contracts in Afghanistan alone.
The use of private companies to support the war generated significant controversy from the very beginning. The use of the largest of these providers — Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) — was particularly concerning because it had once been helmed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. A number of years earlier, when Cheney was secretary of defense, the Pentagon awarded Halliburton a nearly $9 million contract for a study showing how private companies could provide support for overseas military deployments. Cheney became the CEO of Halliburton following his stint as defense secretary, and resigned from the company to run for the vice presidency in the ultimate revolving door routine. KBR quickly secured contracts to support U.S. military personnel all over the world for up to $5 billion a year.
The Pentagon not only outsourced much of its own logistical support, it also outsourced significant military functions such as base security, local police and military force training, and embassy and critical infrastructure protection. Organizations like Blackwater, CACI, Titan Corporation, and Triple Canopy recruited law enforcement and former servicemembers to provide these services.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reported that by 2008, the Pentagon and State Department had paid $5.3 billion to 77 private security contractors “in support of U.S.-funded projects and programs since 2003.” Contracts like this were still being awarded years after the bipartisan Wartime Contracting Commission recommended that the government phase out the use of private security contractors for certain functions and receive greater scrutiny and supervision from government employees. The Commission found that as of 2011, “at least $31 billion, and possibly as much as $60 billion, has been lost to contract waste and fraud.” But the government continued to contract with private security firms, which raked in $2.3 billion to provide approximately 6,000 workers in Afghanistan in 2019 alone.
“The big five spent $1.1 billion for lobbyists, meaning that for every dollar they spent lobbying, they received a staggering $1,909 in taxpayer funds in return.”
Private security contractors have been involved in some of the most notorious violent incidents in the post-9/11 wars. The most shocking incident involving private security contractors happened in Iraq in 2007 when a team of Blackwater employees guarding a U.S. embassy convoy through Baghdad fired into a crowd of civilians in Nisour Square, killing 17 people and wounding 24. A federal jury convicted four of the Blackwater guards, finding them guilty of murder, manslaughter, and weapons charges in 2014. In December 2020, then-President Donald Trump pardoned them.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the loudest voices opposing the withdrawal from Afghanistan were those who stood to profit the most from the war’s continuation. CACI, for instance, had received a five-year, $907 million contract in 2019 to provide the Army with intelligence operations and analytic support in Afghanistan. Company executives told their investors during an August 2021 earnings call they expected to take a “$120 million or so hit from Afghanistan” in the first half of 2022 due to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The company responded by pumping money into DC think tanks. The “experts” it funded this way were all over the media decrying the withdrawal. For example, retired Army General Jack Keane, chairman of the CACI-fundedInstitute for the Study of Warsaid on Fox News that Afghanistan is “going to become a more dangerous place, threatening America.”
Self-interested contractors didn’t start the post-9/11 wars, but their financial motives certainly helped fuel their continuation for 20 years. A congressional blue-ribbon panel of experts published a report in February 2021 urging the Biden administration to extend the Afghanistan withdrawal date without revealing that 11 of the 15 panel members had recently been on the payroll of the defense industry. Moving forward, the Pentagon, through stringent congressional oversight, needs to wean itself from its dependence on service contractors and return to the practice of uniformed servicemembers performing their own essential support. Doing so would help decrease the profit motive to extend overseas military missions. It would also be far less expensive. A POGO study found that it costs the taxpayers nearly three times more to use defense contractors than it would to use someone in uniform to perform the same job.
Politicians Filling Their Coffers
An overwhelming majority of members in both chambers of Congress voted to authorize the war in Afghanistan in September 2001. Only Barbara Lee (D-CA) voted against the measure. Ten subsequent Congresses refused to take official responsibility for the post-9/11 wars, never holding a vote in both chambers to continue or end them. But that didn’t stop members from taking advantage of the conflicts to further their own parochial political interests.
One of the best-known examples of members taking advantage of the war in an effort to secure Pentagon dollars for their states and districts involved helicopters for the Afghan Air Force. Afghan government officials wanted Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters because their rugged design is well-suited to the high altitude and dusty terrain of the country. The relatively simple design of the helicopter also allowed Afghan technicians to perform the majority of the maintenance work on the Mi-17 fleet. The U.S. Army inked a $572.2 million contract in 2013 with Russia’s Rosoboronexport for 30 Mi-17 helicopters and the necessary support equipment to be delivered to the Afghan Air Force.
The deal didn’t sit well with the Connecticut congressional delegation. Connecticut is home to the Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorski Aircraft, a major manufacturer of helicopters in the United States. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) led the effort to shift the Afghan Air Force from the Mi-17 to Sikorsky-built UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. “American dollars should never have gone to Russia for Mi-17 helicopters instead of Sikorsky Blackhawks — a travesty that will now be stopped,” Blumenthal said. After repeatedly badgering the Department of Defense about the Russian helicopters, the Connecticut delegation got their way in 2016 and the Afghan Air Force began receiving Black Hawk helicopters. Before the fall of the Afghan government, 53 had been delivered.
While attempting to keep American tax dollars in the United States is a noble goal, the move did little to improve the precarious position of the Afghan military. Our strategic goal in Afghanistan was to help the government stand on its own. Forcing them to accept Black Hawks, helicopters even the U.S. Army struggles to maintain, made little sense from a practical military standpoint and ensured that the Afghan military would be dependent on foreign assistance for the foreseeable future.
Members of Congress work to get defense contracts for companies and constituents in their districts for a number of reasons. Primary among those reasons is that it’s a good way to show they are capable of bringing home federal dollars to shore up political support from their constituents, and that they receive sizable campaign contributions from defense contractors, their PACs, and their employees. The big five defense firms have made $120 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates in the 20 years since 9/11.
While members of Congress happily took money from defense contractors who profited from the war, few seemed willing to assume ownership of the war. The young people deploying overseas for the post-9/11 wars did so under two Authorizations for Use of Military Force, both passed by the 107th Congress. The 2001 authorization passed three days after the September 11 attacks, and the other passed in October 2002, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
The members of the 117th Congress today are almost an entirely new crop of lawmakers than those who voted to authorize the wars 20 years ago. Only 16 senators and 56 representatives serving today had an opportunity to vote for the wars. A few members have tried to repeal and replace the 2001 and 2002 authorizations over the years, but they all failed. The most recent attempt was in June this year, when the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Iraq authorization. But, like the few other attempts that came before, it ultimately failed to make it to the president’s desk.
Since Kabul fell, members of Congress have made a big show of their interest in the military situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced a contentious hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 14. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and Central Command Commander Kenneth McKenzie faced similarly contentious hearings in front of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees in September. Yet while the wars were actually taking place, most members seemed perfectly willing to take a backseat to the White House and watch the money flow into their districts and campaign coffers.
The American Way of War
The military-industrial-congressional complex has optimized itself to produce a very specific product: an industrial-age military force optimized to fight other industrial powers. The complex’s origins lie mainly in the unprecedented mobilization of industry during World War II. To defeat Germany and Japan, the United States unleashed its industrial potential to overwhelm the enemy with technology and massed forces at the critical places. The subsequent Cold War with the Soviet Union more or less made permanent the basic bureaucratic structures and warfighting ideas that were employed in World War II. As a result, we are in a constant race to build ever-more sophisticated weapons suited for the kind of major state war that the world fortunately hasn’t seen in more than 70 years.
The Taliban provided more evidence that expending massive resources is not what it takes to win wars. The United States and its NATO partners used every scrap of available technology — including drones, sophisticated computer analytics, and modern aircraft — to gain ground over the course of the twenty years we were fighting in Afghanistan, only to see the country fall to the Taliban in a matter of days after we withdrew. The Taliban showed once again how high technology can be defeated by low-tech means. Such an idea is foreign to our defense establishment, which operates under the notion that any military problem can be solved with more spending, more weapons, and more technology.
The doyens of the complex will doubtlessly claim for the rest of their lives that American forces were never defeated in the field, in much the same way their generational counterparts did after Vietnam. They miss the point that you can win at the tactical level all day long, but it means nothing if all of those victories add up to a strategic defeat.
A concept taught in American military schools is the levels of warfare. There are three levels — strategic, operational, and tactical — and the Department of Defense states that those three levels “model the relationship between national objectives and tactical actions. The operational level of warfare links the tactical employment of forces to national strategic objectives.”
While it would be difficult to find an officer who is not familiar with that concept, far fewer understand the more important concept of the dimensions of war. They are, in descending order of importance, the moral, mental, and physical dimensions. The U.S. military is skilled at the physical dimension of war, which is why we win at the tactical level. But, as was proven in Iraq and Afghanistan, we aren’t as good at the mental dimension. The Taliban clearly out-thought us. American policymakers and military leaders should have realized that their ambitious plan to build a Western-style Afghan military could not work. A better plan would have been to assist the Afghan government to create a force suitable for the unique security situation and geography of the region.
But where the complex really fails is in the moral dimension. Afghanistan in 2001 had no hope of matching American military technology. Using a $70,000 Hellfire missile launched from a drone to destroy a mud hut belonging to people with no effective means to fight back turned the United States into Goliath. And, as Wilt Chamberlain once said, “nobody roots for Goliath.” To avoid appearing as a bully in future conflicts like this, the United States should leave a great deal of military hardware like drones and high-flying fighter jets at home. You have to show restraint whenever possible to win in the moral dimension.
Unfortunately, the United States had little choice but to take the weapons and tactics designed for a major war with a peer adversary and use them against the tribal fighters in Afghanistan. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” While Rumsfeld’s flippant statement received the mocking it deserved, the then-secretary of defense actually admitted an important truth. The incentive structure that keeps the machinery of the military-industrial-congressional complex running produces a force that maximizes the flow of money, but it practically guarantees the disastrous outcomes we have experienced in the post-9/11 wars.
Despite its monumental failures after 9/11, the military-industrial-congressional complex isn’t missing a beat. The Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen who evacuated civilians from Kabul haven’t even dumped all the sand from their boots following our defeat, yet Congress is now poised to pass a $778 billion defense budget — one of the largest in history — to continue to prepare for the kind of great power conflict the complex profits from.
“Despite its monumental failures after 9/11, the military-industrial-congressional complex isn’t missing a beat.”
Rather than rewarding the complex with more money to carry on with business as usual in the wake of our nation’s defeat, Americans should now be demanding reforms. A few reforms aimed at the very lifeblood of the complex would greatly disrupt its most insidious influences. Congress should:
- Restore the pre-1976 prohibition on contractor campaign contributions, thereby assuring the American public that it’s not campaign contributions that are driving contracting decisions.
- Restrain Pentagon budgets to force the services to make more pragmatic technological choices and to produce simpler weapon systems.
- Require recently retired government officials and their new employers to file revolving door reports attesting that the former official has complied with their revolving door exit plan to control the undue influence of the defense industry on policy matters. A full list of recommendations to prevent the insidious effects of the revolving door can be found here.
- Reinstate a 1962 law signed by President John F. Kennedy that stripped retired naval and Marine Corps officers of retirement pay if they “engaged for himself or others in selling, or contracting or negotiating to sell, naval supplies or war materials to the Department of the Navy.” Congress repealed this provision in 1966, but restoring it and expanding the scope to include flag officers from all services could be an effective means of combating the effects of senior military leaders leveraging their positions.
The events of August 2021 proved that the military-industrial-congressional complex emperor had no clothes. And the post-9/11 wars in general proved just how dangerous the complex’s unwarranted influence can be. The only solace is the knowledge that the Taliban army lacks the ability to exploit their victory and mount a conventional military invasion of the United States. But unless the practitioners of the complex are held to account and fundamental changes are made, the next defeat it will produce could not only bankrupt the nation but also bring disaster to American shores.