It’s Monday night at the Keg. Your wing man abandoned you and you’re slowly but surely losing the battle on looking like you’re not a loner. If bribery is looking like a viable option, then don’t feel too bad about it; even our government needs to pay someone off to help them out now and then. Even if they’re the enemy.
Imagine you’re a Taliban militant. You’ve just been offered a shot at amnesty for killing civilians and American soldiers. All you have to do is renounce insurgency and promise not to fight for the Taliban anymore. Oh and you get paid for this, by the way. Deal or no deal?
Last Wednesday, President Obama signed a defense bill including a provision that would allow such a deal to be made. The bill authorizes the existing funds for the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP), a fund used for investment at the local level by senior military officials in the field, to pay for this initiative. Essentially, military officials can now use CERP’s $1.3 billion to pay off Taliban militants if they wanted to.
What’s the rationale?
It’s worked before in a different country almost as messed up as Afghanistan: Iraq. The program, called the “Sons of Iraq”, paid locals to side with the U.S. In April 2008, about 91,000 citizens became employed by the armed services for $300 a month.
Officials in the region touted the success of the program as a leading factor in the overall decline of violence in the region (we’ll just forget about the twin car-bomb attacks in Baghdad last week). It’s difficult to remember a time when we didn’t want Iraqis taking their security into their own hands. But back to Afghanistan.
Why is this plan surreptitiously smart?
We need all the help we can get in Afghanistan: unsuccessful elections (regardless of moderate turnout), entire swaths of land controlled by non-governmental militants, incessant raids on U.S. held territories and civilians, an increase in Taliban numbers, etc. Failed state? It’s getting there if it isn’t already.
The picture in Afghanistan is certainly far from pretty. But just imagine the Kodak moment we might get to see if Afghans take back their country from the Taliban and finally take control of their own political economy. Sure these may be mercenaries under American employ, but they’ll still be soldiers fighting for Afghan sovereignty without the red, white, and blue on their shoulder patch. Such an end would ultimately be more effectual than us staying there and trying our best to get Afghans to like us.
It’s a good deal: Afghans win, Americans win, the Taliban loses, and our troops get to come home.
Why is this plan fantastically inept?
Does any of this sound familiar to you? My global history professor would scoff at this idea. So would George Santayana, who famously declared, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I could write a dissertation-length article on how U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war of the late seventies-early eighties led us to 9/11 and the post-9/11 era, but you’ve heard it all before and if not, it’s easy to hear about. Watch Charlie Wilson’s War, if not for the historical commentary, then for Tom Hanks’ Texas charm.
I should mention that we didn’t exactly pay Afghans to fight the Soviets back in the 80’s, but we did supply them with the necessary arms and training in an attempt to 1) beat our Cold War foe and 2) win the hearts and minds of Afghans (or at least try and throw enough money at their cause to do so). Replace “Soviets” with “Taliban” and “Cold War” with “The Global War on Terrorism” and you’ve pretty much got the same dynamic.
As the saying goes, you can rent an Afghan but you can’t buy him. And it’s true. These mercenaries will only be happy as long as they keep getting a paycheck from Uncle Sam. But when he leaves, they’ll still have to feed their families. All they’ll have then are really awful farming prospects, opium and guns. You connect the dots.
It’s a raw deal: short-term gains, but likely plenty of pains on the horizon. Again.
The repercussions of this program could be extremely beneficial, but also catastrophic. Unlike looking normal at the Keg, this program won’t ruin social standing: it has the potential to ruin a nation and a people, but end a war.
In sum, the plan definitely has its pros but they may not exactly outweigh the cons: fewer guns pointed at us, more guns pointed at our foes, and a whole lot of problems facing us in the future if we play this as poorly as we did in 1989.