BRIAN LAMB: Douglas Wissing, you have a quote in your book about Afghanistan where you say the U.S. officials sure weren’t telling the American public, the military called the press briefings at Kabul, feeding the chickens. What chickens are they feeding?
DOUGLAS WISSING: The American people, basically, through the medial that would cluster to get little scraps of information. And what was told in those kinds of scenarios were much different than the on the ground reality that you found out in forward operating bases or combat outposts where the soldiers would tell you the truth, development officials would tell you the truth.
LAMB: What’s the theme of this book?
WISSING: Well, when I was embedded in eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers started telling me that the U.S. government was wasting tens of billions of dollars on totally mismanaged development and logistic contracts.
They started telling me there was this toxic network between distracted American officials, the U.S. corporations, Afghan insiders and government officials and the Taliban. Everybody was in on this.
And the result was, we were funding our own enemy. We were the soldiers would say, we’re funding both sides of this war.
And when they first told me that, it seemed preposterous and the more I dug into it, the more interviews I did, the more reading I did in the government documents and think tank reports and everything, they were right. We’re funding our own enemy and that’s how I got the title of the book.
LAMB: How did you get into this in the first place?
WISSING: I had seen an article about a type of army team called and agribusiness development team, National Guard agribusiness development team. And the article I saw was by about a Texas National Guard agribusiness development team in an eastern Afghanistan province called Ghazni.
And they were talking about the Texans going out there and starting a wheat seed farm at 11,000 feet. I’ve done a lot of work in Tibet, I know a fair amount about what grows at various altitudes and I’ve seen a lot of failed development projects all over the third world.
And I was standing on a corner looking at this article thinking, well, that won’t work. And I thought that was odd and I tore the article out I was actually in Mexico I tore the article out and stuffed it in my briefcase.
And I noticed in the article there was a team from the Indiana National Guard that was also going out, and I live in Indiana. A month later I found this clipping at the bottom of my briefcase and I had a couple of minutes and I thought, I’ll make a few phone calls and see if I can find out about this team.
And I tracked them down at Camp Atterbury outside of Columbus that you may be familiar with.
LAMB: Columbus, Indiana.
WISSING: Columbus, Indiana. And I talked to a sergeant and the sergeant said, well, if you want to talk to them you have to come this afternoon or tomorrow morning, they’re leaving for Afghanistan.
And I had a few moments the next day, it’s about an hour from my house. I drove over there thinking, oh, this will be another group of people that don’t really know what they’re doing and they’re going to do something that won’t do any good.
And I went out there and met with the command team. I thought I was going to be talking to people as they were packing stuff up, but the command team sat down with me; relatively small group, about 65 soldiers.
And I learned that they had they were much different than what I anticipated. They had had a lot of cultural training at Indiana University, which is really famous for central Asian studies. They spoke a little bit of Pashto, they had had Afghan appropriate agricultural training at Perdue University.
And I asked them, so what kind of projects are you going to do in Afghanistan? And they looked at me and said, we don’t know yet; we’re going to ask the Afghans.
And they had me. I just said, well, I’d be interested in embedding with you. And six weeks later I was out there in my 50-pounds of body armor that I had gotten on bulletproof.com and that’s how I got there.
And then what I very quickly learned was the thing that was unique about the agribusiness development team soldiers was that they had their own security. So, they had a fleet of armored vehicles they’re called MRAPs, mine-resistant kind of vehicles, enormous armored vehicles.
They had the, you know, a full platoon of security soldiers and they had these agricultural specialist. Well, what that did and they were out. Only about 10 percent of the American soldiers leave the bases, break the wires they say.
The agribusiness development team was out in Afghan villages interacting with Afghans all the time, several times a week. So, you go to see it was a great window into all kinds of aspects. We were in Khost province, which was the most violent province in Afghanistan, the most kinetic, as the soldiers say. Such a nice term for things that blow up.
And so, you got to deal with combat issues. You got to deal with development issues, you go to deal with Afghan-American interactions between the two governments. And so, in some cases we would be meeting with a sub-governor that everyone knew was also Taliban.
So, the complexities of this extraordinary war that we have been engaged in for a decade, things relating to what’s called Civ-Mil, military/civilian cooperation between the state department and the Pentagon and those kinds of things, how did that work out?
Those were all right there in this one group and it gave me just an extraordinary lens to look at a lot of things.
LAMB: Where do you live?
WISSING: I live in Bloomington, Indiana.
LAMB: What’s your full-time profession?
WISSING: I’m a journalist, writer.
LAMB: And if your lifetime, what other kind of work have you done besides this book?
WISSING: Well, I’ve been involved with a historic preservation kind of thing, I’ve done work with I’ve done a number of books on Indiana, I’ve done a book on Tibet called Pioneering Tibet about a famous explorer, I had a printing company for many years. I’ve done a lot of things.
LAMB: When did you go to Afghanistan and how many times have you been there?
WISSING: I was there in 2009, I was there a couple of times, I was there in, well, the Pashtun regions of Pakistan pre-9/11.
LAMB: How long did you spend there?
WISSING: Pre-9/11 a month, six weeks, something like that. Each one of these about a month, six weeks.
LAMB: How much money have U.S. taxpayers spent in Afghanistan?
WISSING: President Obama referenced a trillion dollars. That number is subject to a lot of debate.
LAMB: For Afghanistan alone?
WISSING: For Afghanistan alone. I think that’s relating to the ongoing costs, veteran stuff.
LAMB: How many Americans have been killed?
WISSING: We’re running on 2000.
WISSING: Tens of thousands.
LAMB: You write at the last page of your book, you say none of it looks promising. Decades of American arrogance and cupidity have brought us to this point. Explain.
WISSING: Well, there’s this toxic system that’s now really embedded, really deeply entrenched. There’s a lot of beneficiaries and to start breaking that apart, we have almost a wholly corrupt government that we’re supporting, the Karzai government.
They have gotten very facile in manipulating us. A U.N. analyst said something, like, we are embarrassing ourselves because we can’t seem to ever get a handle on that. We seem to need them more than they need us.
We have the military industrial complex and the development industrial complex that are making extraordinary amounts of money there. The Afghan insiders that are connected to the Karzai government are doing extremely well. It’s a system.
LAMB: How does it work?
WISSING: Well, the money comes from the congress, goes out there, the military controls a lot and we’re on very short rotations out there. Often six months, a year. Everybody has a to-do list and spending money is among the top things. You know, the burn rate. You’ve got to spend your budget or you can’t get more.
So, it’s a lot about spend, spend, spend. You’ve got six months to add a line to your resume.
We don’t really track what the outcomes are. We track the input; we’ve planted 3.2 million trees, we don’t ask how many are still alive a year later. And the big question that we don’t ask is, what is the impact on the insurgency? Have we had an impact by spending this money? That is a statistic that is really tough to find.
LAMB: How does our arrogance show up?
WISSING: Well, we think we can send a specialist in for three months and he can penetrate an opaque tribal society and make any sense out of it. We believe we know exactly what’s the right thing to do and we often don’t ask the Afghans what they want. We think we’re rich and we’re always right.
LAMB: What was your attitude before you went to Afghanistan in 2009? Were you against the war or for it?
WISSING: I think I was I don’t think I exactly knew. I knew the stated mission was to bind the people of Afghanistan to the Karzai government, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
That’s seemed problematic to me because Afghanistan doesn’t have a tradition of a centralized government and also the government is really corrupt, so that was going to be tough.
LAMB: Explain the corruption thing. What do you mean by, corrupt?
WISSING: Well, it’s Transparency International has a corruption index, transparency index, and they rank countries from most corrupt to least corrupt. Afghanistan was at the top of the charts, you know, number two.
In 2009, I think they maybe slipped a little bit, but through the years we’ve been there, they have climbed in rankings to be among the most corrupt places on earth.
LAMB: Can you see this, though, when you’re there? When you see the money and who’s gotten it and what they’ve done with it.
WISSING: Well, I can remember being in an old British fort outside of Khost City, the capital of the province. And you could look down it was up on a hill, 19th century British fort and the soldiers would point, oh yes, see, that’s a Narco-Palace, that’s a, you know and you could see these vast, new compounds down below.
It’s who gets what, when and how politics.
LAMB: What about the drug story? What have we done about fighting the drugs, or have we?
WISSING: We’ve gone back and forth. Initially, we really empowered the drug lords to drive out the Taliban and then after the Taliban was gone, effectively let them have power again. And have had periods when we would have counter-narcotics programs and then we wouldn’t.
And there would be arguments within the military and the administration about whether we would do something or not do something. We would have grotesquely wasteful alternative lifestyle kinds of projects where we would spend tens of millions of dollars, it would be completely ineffective in terms of counter-narcotics.
It was a lot about burning up money and we really didn’t impact it. It’s still 90 percent of the world’s opium is grown there.
LAMB: Do the people that live there use the opium?
WISSING: Not very much. It’s a more in Iran, but not that much there.
WISSING: I didn’t see any.
LAMB: And so when you went there and were embedded with the Indiana National Guard
WISSING: And other units.
LAMB: And other units, yes, where were you and what was your lifestyle like on a day-to-day basis?
WISSING: I was in forward operating bases in Khost province, Ghazni province, Parwan province, Logman province. They were like Fort Apaches, you’re in the middle of Taliban country and subject to rocket attacks. Forward operating base Salerno that’s on outside Khost City, had so many rocket attacks that it was called rocket city. You get baseball caps that had rocket city emblazoned on it.
LAMB: What did the American military personnel think of this war?
WISSING: Soldiers would say, living the dream, sir. It was what they wanted to do; going out on the combat outpost where they were attacked all the time.
LAMB: What was your reaction when you heard this alleged charge that one man over there killed 17 people? One American?
WISSING: Well, when I heard about the alleged incident, I thought it would be a guy who had had multiple deployments, I thought it would be a guy who had IEDs, mild brain trauma. I thought it would be a guy who probably had been in a troops in combat, a TIC. He would have lost somebody close to him.
I didn’t think that he had been a sniper, which is a whole different kind of personality profile and training. But, that was what I thought and then when the soldier was the name was released, that was indeed the case.
LAMB: In your conclusion you say, as America has upped its bets in Afghanistan, the insurgency has continued to grow in power and influence. How do you know that?
WISSING: Well, government documents, primarily. Sometimes nongovernmental documents, U.N. documents, things of that nature. The military estimates that the Taliban has shadow governments in 33 of the 34 provinces. There were 16,000 IEDs planted last year, which is basically double the number every few years that IED number.
LAMB: Explain exactly what an IED is.
WISSING: And IED is a buried bomb, is a mine often made of homemade explosives, fertilizer is the most common one. Very inexpensive, 30 bucks an IED.
LAMB: What kind of damage does it do and does it explode on impact?
WISSING: Different ways. They’re often buried and sometimes now they use pressure plates. They used to use cellphones but we had ways of blocking that trigger, I mean, very simple kinds of things. Two pieces of metal two pieces of wood come together and create a contact point.
They can blow up a 37,000 pound armored vehicle. They’re immense now.
LAMB: Were you did you ride the MRAPs and what is an MRAP?
WISSING: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. And it’s a million and a half dollar vehicle that has a V-shaped bottom to it to deflect the blast. They have a machine gunner on top and yes, I was in MRAPs a lot. I was in a convoy that was, you know, we hit and IED.
LAMB: You hit your vehicle hit an IED?
WISSING: No, the one at the front.
LAMB: Anybody hurt?
WISSING: Not in that particular instance, but in other ones.
LAMB: Have these MRAPs made a difference?
WISSING: They have saved a lot of legs, a lot of lives where we lost a lot in Humvees. What they can’t protect is from the pressure, the pressure wave that comes from the blast, so you get lots and lots of these mild brain traumas. That’s the tidal wave that’s threatening to overwhelm the V.A. system.
LAMB: In your book every chapter ends with a scene, explain that technique.
WISSING: Well, it there is a technique of telling a big story with a small one, and so the scenes are a way to bring Afghanistan to the reader, to explain to them exactly what it feels like, what do you really encounter? There is the nice story from the podium in Washington, this is what it’s like on the ground in Afghanistan.
LAMB: There is one scene in there and we’re jumping to the end, but as you leave the country, the story of going to the airport, the story of the money and all that. Tell that story.
WISSING: Well, going to the airport is not that tough, typically. But, if you’re in Kabul and you have to get out of the country, it’s pretty complicated because one, kidnapping is endemic and as a journalist you can get kidnapped.
So, first you have to get a really trustworthy driver and then he kind of makes a sprint out of your guest house, which is a little port, effectively, with guards. And you make a run up the street that’s called ambush ally because there are so many attacks on the thing.
You finally get to the airport, you avoid eye contact as you’re passing pickups full of Afghan men.
LAMB: Why do you avoid eye contact?
WISSING: You’re just trying to get there. You’re you don’t want to attract any more attention than you can.
You get to the airport and there’s just concentric rings of security. You go through full body searches, you go through a dog comes up and sniffs you everywhere and then you finally get up to the point where they start going through your baggage and it goes very, very slow until my Afghan driver was great and he said, give them $5 and you know, then we’re done with security checks and your bags once the fiver slides over.
And then it’s baksheesh; you asked about corruption. Everybody needs money to do anything; to get your kid in school, to get a driver’s license, to start a business, to, you know, move do anything.
LAMB: What’s baksheesh, by the way?
WISSING: Baksheesh is a bribe or a sweet you know, it’s a sweetener. Some people say it’s like tip, but the tips get pretty big.
So, there’s just porters. Each porter has to have baksheesh and, you know, it’s a couple of bucks, it’s a lot of money in Afghanistan. People make $400 a year.
And you finally get there and there’s just more security, more checks, confiscations and there’s giant throngs of Pashtuns that are all trying to get on the last flights leaving. And it’s, you know, it’s like a black and white movie sometimes.
LAMB: How many different payoffs did you have to make before you got into a seat on an airplane?
WISSING: Seven, if I’m remembering right.
LAMB: How much money total?
WISSING: It’s not a vast amount of money total, maybe 20 bucks or something.
LAMB: And how many searches did you have before you sat in your seat?
WISSING: Five, as I recall.
LAMB: And then once you were in your seat, somebody came up to you and said, you know, I want to see your boarding pass and it was hand-written and what was that all about?
WISSING: Well, you get you finally go through this throng and I was lucky because there’s this hoard of pretty burly Afghan guys, Pashtuns, and to get a boarding pass was just a giant throng. I buddied up with a couple of fellows from Khost province who then had told their friends that they needed to stop pushing me around.
So, I got a boarding pass, but it’s just hand-written. And so, when I finally got my seat it wasn’t over, I could look out and I could see there was this giant line of people out there there were more people than seats. And I predicted that sooner or later the steward was going to be coming down the aisle trying to find somebody to throw off the flight.
And I’m figuring my hand-written boarding pass wasn’t going to be good, so I just kind of got stolid and eventually we did take off. It seemed to take forever.
LAMB: The two camps that you write about, the CT camp and the COIN camp, what does CT mean and what does COIN mean?
WISSING: Well, there’s been an argument going on in Washington between the counter-terrorism people Vice President Biden is often considered the most vocal advocate of that group and the counter-insurgency group, General Petraeus, General McChrystal’s group.
And the reality is those lines are very blurred. There’s lots of counter-terrorism, would be like our special ops teams, the hunter/killer teams, the drones. That’s counter-terrorism. Involved in the counter insurgency program, but nonetheless they argue. The reality is we funded them both pretty well.
LAMB: What’s dominating now?
WISSING: Seems like we’re definitely tilting towards counter-terrorism. We think the counter-insurgency, which would include the national building stuff, the winning hearts and minds. The military has an acronym, naturally, being the military, called WHAM, winning hearts and minds.
And they talk about making WHAM stops to go buy stuff or, you know, WHAM stops to talk to a group about building a well digging a well, building a school. That seems to be declining pretty rapidly.
LAMB: So, if you live in the United States and you’ve been kind of paying attention to this story and the news media, what is it that people here, living here, who have not been there, don’t see that you’ve seen, and what would the reaction be of the general populous here if they saw it up close?
WISSING: Well, I suppose there’s a lot of things that people wouldn’t expect to find, a Pizza Hut or an espresso bar in the front line combat base. Yet, those are pretty common. Bagram air base has got a strip mall where you can buy all kinds of things.
They’d probably be surprised to know that you can take classes on combat outposts where in between rocket attacks you can go take accounting classes. But, I think they would really be amazed at the money that gets wasted, the projects that get funded at the level they get funded that don’t do anything, that don’t have any connection to suppressing the insurgency.
LAMB: But, again, how do you see this?
WISSING: Well, you can watch a project go through the process, from having a contract, a request for proposals, going out to Afghan contractors, the bids coming in and maybe it’s for a series of dams.
And you watch the process, so a request for a we’ll just talk about one in a village called (INAUDIBLE) where the request for bids went out there were 75 of them. It was for a series of small check dams, check dams being basically piled up rocks, small piled up rocks probably as high as your shoulder, size of your waist, things like that. The villagers pile up rocks.
And here a guy with a bulldozer would maybe do it in a few days and it would cost X amount of money, I may be understating that. So, at any rate, when the bids came in, they the bids were for $450,000 in general because the Afghans had learned we didn’t care, we didn’t know. We would pay anything because it was all about spending money.
And what had happened is that particular contracting mechanism, what was called CERP, commanders emergency response program money, had changed the maximum you could spend was $200,000, so the soldiers went back to these Afghan contractors and said, well, 450 won’t fly. So, suddenly the bids come in at $199,000.
And then, the money gets melted away in various ways, payoffs, and the officer in charge said, well, 30 or 40 percent may have gone to the Taliban because this is a project being done in Taliban controlled country. And the project never was attacked and the Taliban just waited for payday.
LAMB: What’s the Taliban?
WISSING: Well, the Taliban is a hydra-headed various groups. There are three kind of major insurgency groups there. They are fundamentalists, Islamic insurgents.: Are they motivated by religion? Probably. Are they motivated by nationalism? Probably. Anti-foreign sentiment? Probably. But, it’s many groups.
LAMB: How many of the what is the population of Afghanistan?
WISSING: It hasn’t had a census for a long, long time, but the estimates are between 25 and 30 million.
LAMB: How many of those would call themselves members of the Taliban?
WISSING: Well, I think what you find is there’s lots and lots of people on the fence, because the Taliban is your cousin or your brother and you don’t the Americans probably said they’re leaving, so you cover your bets.
So, what does that mean? You know, we tried to parse that into hard core Taliban, moderate Taliban, things to make PowerPoint slides out of.
LAMB: Speaking of that, here’s a photograph that where there was well, we’ll put it on the screen and you can tell us what it is, but it says there, you lost it. What are they talking about? What’s that photo? Did you excuse me did you take it?
WISSING: Yes. It actually says, the game, you lost it. And it’s on a blast barrier that’s beside a helipad on forward operating base Mehtar Lam in Logman province, eastern Afghanistan.
And I took this photograph early one morning; it had been a long night, the artillery had been going off all day, or all night, the rapid response teams had been going out because of attacks. And a soldier spray painted that on there and it seemed to encapsulate a lot of what’s gone after ten years of war.
LAMB: In one of your scenes you talk about that tunnel between in Kabul between the embassy buildings. What was that scene meant to describe?
WISSING: Well, I had been out in eastern Afghanistan for quite a while and it’s rustic out there. I suppose that would be about the nicest way to put it. And I had someone had arranged for me to stay on the American embassy compound.
And there’s two parts to the compound, and there’s a road that goes between them and it used to be the people in the embassy would just walk across the road, but the attacks grew so security got so bad there that they built a tunnel between the two sides because they couldn’t cross the road anymore in the middle of Kabul, that is supposedly surrounded by a ring of steel and we have supposedly extraordinary security.
But, they’re tunnel people. They have to use this underground tunnel to go from one side of the embassy to the other.
And the big thing that you got in the embassy was I got an overnight accommodation in a hooch, in a trailer, basically. And the big thing was it had a private bathroom, that seemed like an incredibly exotic thing after being out in eastern Afghanistan.
And one of the soldiers wives told me that her husband was sending her back daily emails about how excited he was to have his own toilet and have his own shower. It was a big thing.
LAMB: What did the different National Guard agribusiness groups accomplish, if anything? And how many different ones were you embedded with?
WISSING: I was embedded with five. They were much each one is very different. Everything is very personality driven, whether it’s these National Guard agribusiness development teams, whether it is what is called provincial reconstruction teams that are military/civilian organizations that have the same kind of setup. They have their own security, USAID.
Things change very dramatically every time you shift a country director or shift someone who’s working in a brigade. A new personality sometimes just brings a totally different way of doing things.
And so, each one of these agribusiness development teams were much different. Just as I talked about the Texas team that had this idea about the wheat seed farm at 11,000 feet, you had the Indiana team that was interested in doing very relatively low budget, high impact projects that used a lot of interaction with Afghans and different groups have different ideas.
LAMB: Like what? I mean, give us an example of exactly what they do.
WISSING: Well, we can use this sort of megaproject with the Texans as one end of the extreme they were talking about air lifting in great plains-style combines into an area where literacy is 10 percent and it’s there’s virtually no roads and no capacity to sustain that, to do a massive agribusiness kind of thing versus the Indiana team that would do, oh, let’s say a honeybee project for teaching Afghan women how to raise honeybees to help them with their family incomes.
Or to teach them how to clean their wheat seed to get the weeds out of it so you increase their yield by 10 or 12 percent where it’s very it’s incremental, it’s sustainable, it’s pretty simple. Building root cellars.
You have to remember the Afghans lost a couple of generations of farmers. Between the Russians and between the civil war, a lot of their traditional irrigation was destroyed, their orchards, they have orchard tradition there, they were all cut down, grapes, all that stuff was really destroyed. Knowledge, that was lost.
LAMB: You’ve got a picture from your book of some farmers. Where’s this?
WISSING: This would be Khost province in a district called Bak. And this is your typical Afghan farm scene. People working the soil with implements like that. They might have a donkey sometimes, there are a few tractors around.
LAMB: And we would fly in a combine?
WISSING: Yes. As it turns out, the Texans didn’t do that project. They realized it didn’t work out for a whole bunch of reasons, including the fact we didn’t understand it was actually vast communal grazing land for Hazara people up there.
But, we did figure that out and so that wheat seed farm didn’t happen. They did something else that was grazing, you know, livestock excellence program.
LAMB: Is there any system of checks and balances over there? In other words, once money comes in and it’s spent on a project and a year later do we go around as a country and check things to see if they’re still operating, see if schools are still being built, being used?
WISSING: I had an experience where, again in Khost province, the team the agribusiness development team, had veterinarian experts with them and what they were expecting to do, USAID had come in a couple of years before and had built a series of veterinary clinics around the province.
And so when the agribusiness team arrived, they said, well, where are those clinics because we’re going to work out of those to work with Afghan farmers to improve livestock and USAID didn’t know. They had lost the location of where they were.
And the man that was in charge of that project was a captain named Bob Klein, was an assistant prosecutor in his civilian work, he was a pretty hard-nosed prosecutor. He worked with murder cases, he was used to making things happen. He was getting things done, he kept after USAID, it took a month.
Finally, USAID admitted they had lost the electronic files, they only had them in hard copy and they were going to have to dig. And they finally came up with the locations of these veterinarian clinics after a month or so.
And so the team, as they started working their way around the province began to track these down. They found virtually every single one had been abandoned, they had been vandalized. In one case the entire building was gone.
LAMB: Does Congress see this?
WISSING: It’s in the documents.
LAMB: I mean, how do you get the information? How much of these documents have you spent time reading?
WISSING: A year, year and a half.
LAMB: Where do you get them?
WISSING: They’re online, there, you know, the joy of Google.
LAMB: What grade would you give the media in its coverage of Afghanistan?
WISSING: A ”C.”
LAMB: Why a ”C” and not an ”A” or not an ”F?”
WISSING: A ”C” because they have continued to cover it and there have been journalists who have done a good job of working through various parts of it in various ways. A ”C” because a lot of times it’s just retyping press release from the military or the embassy without digging to find out has this been sustained, has this been, you know, they’ll repeat the happy story.
LAMB: But, from your experience, when you’re back here in this country and you listen to the announcements coming out of the government, what tells you that you’re not getting the full story? What should you look for in the language?
WISSING: Well, when it focuses on what I call a happy story; the village gets a well, oh, look, the people have water now. Let’s use the well as an example. We’ve drilled tens of thousands of wells, totally uncoordinated well drilling, tube well drilling all over Afghanistan. What could be nicer? We drilled in the military, you know, U.S. government drilled and the military drilled them.
Nongovernmental organizations, the U.N., everybody drilled them because what could be nicer? Give a village a well. But, what we didn’t figure out was we were lowering the water table and we were effectively rendering land all over Afghanistan that had been airable, that had been used, unusable because we lowered the water table.
The U.S. geological survey did a you know, they did an aging project to figure out what was the age of the aquifer in the water that we were pumping out for Kabul. And they discovered the water was 20,000 years old. We were effectively mining the water.
And no one has any idea what’s going to happen. I mean, hydrologist just said, this is a very dramatic story because it doesn’t replenish like it does here.
LAMB: You have a photograph in your book of you can explain what this is, but this has something to do with water. Where is this?
WISSING: This is a photograph taken from a black hawk helicopter, we were doing a reconnaissance flight. And you can see the impact of water, it’s a very arid country and where it’s brown and green is where there’s irrigation and water and where it’s gray and dry is where there isn’t.
So, the importance of water is crucial in Afghanistan. And this is the kind of thing that we have impacted with uncoordinated well drilling.
LAMB: How many roads have we built?
WISSING: We’ve built a lot of roads. How many are still usable is another question.
LAMB: Why wouldn’t they still be usable?
WISSING: Because we would build them very badly, because it was all about spend, spend, spend. We wouldn’t have any budget for maintenance, so they were totally unsustainable. We would there’s a process called de-scoping where you basically accept whatever a corporation has done as fulfilling contracts, so they can lower the base of the road down to some minimal amount of crushed rock and not even do that, lower the pavement thickness and very soon they’re unusable.
LAMB: You tell a story in one of your scenes, is it Tani province?
LAMB: Tani and Khost province 2009, Tani district, about the cement.
WISSING: Yes. The infamous Tani dam. This was a project where a provincial reconstruction team, one of these military/civilian entities, decided they wanted to build a dam. And they were hell bent for leather to build that dam.
And they did. And the big thing that always happens with this is the ribbon cutting ceremony. That seems like everything runs toward that photo op. And at the Tani dam everybody was there, the governor was there with all his security team, the military leaders were there, the provincial reconstruction team, the development people, USAID, everybody was out at the Tani dam, a nice, concrete dam.
But, it’s in Taliban country, it’s a little dangerous, everybody is a little uneasy. And a lot of people were on a bank overlooking the dam - not on the dam, you had the dignitaries with their security team. And suddenly there was a gunshot and everybody thought it was an attack.
And then they looked around and they realized, oh, no, it was one of the Afghan national army guys that was guarding the governor, he had accidentally discharged his rifle, which is incredibly common out there.
The soldiers would say, you need to keep something solid between yourself and them because accidental discharges of the Afghan national soldiers is pretty rife. So, the guy, I think, shot himself in the foot.
And then they started looking around figuring there was going to be a bunch of ricochet wounds because the guy discharged it into this new concrete and there’s no ricochet wounds. They started looking closer and they realize this bullet has penetrated four inches into the concrete. That means that the concrete is effectively worthless.
And I talked to an engineer about it and he said, oh, yes, they used the elephant concrete. That’s that stuff we that they get out of Pakistan. Whenever we see these bags he showed me a bag of elephant concrete. He said, whenever we see these empty bags around a job site, we just shut it down because it won’t work. And a hydrologist later said, I wouldn’t want to be living downstream of the Tani dam.
LAMB: What do you think, based on your experience over there, and you were there for how many months in 2009?
WISSING: About three months.
LAMB: What do you think the Afghanistan I know this is a broad question, but the Afghanistan people think about the United States?
WISSING: An Afghan scholar just sent me an email and he just said the Afghan people are tired of being lied to and tired of the foreigners claiming they’re going to do something nice for them but really just enriching themselves.
LAMB: Who’s enriching themselves?
WISSING: The foreigners in his viewpoint. So, there is a concept in the aid world called phantom aid where very little we spent about $60 billion on aid and development in Afghanistan, and the estimate is only about 10 percent of that ever got the Afghan people.
LAMB: Where did it go?
WISSING: Well, phantom aid relates to these contracts going to large development corporations.
WISSING: American, some international.
LAMB: Who forms these corporations?
WISSING: Often U.S., you know, former USAID officials.
LAMB: And who what is USAID?
WISSING: Now it’s part of the state department. It’s our arm to distribute foreign aid.
LAMB: So, people go to work at the USAID and then come out and form companies, get the grants to do what?
WISSING: To help stand up Afghan ministries, to mentor them, to organize land title, you know, organize the entire land title process in Afghanistan is really confused because of all the turmoil in Afghanistan, to do alternative lifestyle projects for opium farmers, to teach Afghan women how to raise chickens, to fill in the blanks.
LAMB: If you can make a ton of money, if you’re an Afghan farmer, off of growing poppy, why would you care about the rest of it? How would you talk somebody out of doing that?
WISSING: Well, they obviously haven’t been too successful.
LAMB: So, in effect, are we funding the growing of the poppies?
WISSING: Indirectly I think you could make that case.
LAMB: If someone you met over there who thinks that what we’re doing over there is terrific, who would that be? Genuinely believe in what we’re doing and what would they say? What would be the reversal of what you’re saying?
WISSING: We’re making progress.
LAMB: Towards what?
WISSING: Shifting well, they don’t even use the term, winning, anymore. They say, succeeding.
LAMB: Which is succession well, not succession, but what it succeeding in this case?
WISSING: Excellent question, Brian.
LAMB: You don’t know, or we don’t know, or no one defines it? Does anybody define what succeeding is?
WISSING: It gets pretty hazy pretty fast.
LAMB: I read a piece recently, Lawrence Korb who used to be in the Reagan administration and the defense department, and the headline on it was, it’s time for Karzai to kick the U.S. out of Afghanistan.
And he wrote about the fact that we were kicked out of Iraq and that’s the way we got out. What would be your reaction to something like that?
WISSING: It might be a good thing.
LAMB: I mean, is it time for us to leave there in your opinion?
LAMB: Right away? I mean, you do in the beginning of your book you talk about the history of different world governments involved in Afghanistan. Give us a brief background on how many different countries have tried to be involved in it?
WISSING: Well, Alexander the Great had a rough time there, Genghis Khan had a rough time there, the British tried to subdue Afghanistan going back into the early 19th century up through World War I.
LAMB: But, why though? Why were the British interested in Afghanistan?
WISSING: Well, it was part of the great game, they were sparring with the czar and the Russians over control of central Asia. So, it was the Russians and the czar were moving down through Istans, the Islamic republics along that underbelly. The British were worried about them encroaching on India and their colonial power.
And Afghanistan seemed to become a very crucial part of that as part of the great game (INAUDIBLE) also.
LAMB: How did the Afghanistan people reject the British and then how many times did they lose?
WISSING: Well, the British lost a couple of wars there and then kind of came to a stalemate during World War I.
LAMB: What resulted from the stalemate?
WISSING: The Afghans got control of their foreign policy and the British basically withdrew.
LAMB: What about the Russians and how much did we support them with Jahidin on the other side and what is that? What’s that mean?
WISSING: The mujahidin are Islamic holy warriors. Yes, Steve Coll’s Great Ghost Wars really goes into great detail about our support of the same people that we’re now fighting. He doesn’t his book ends at the end of the soviet war but we were effectively setting a lot of those people up, the Hakanis and the Hekmajar and other really pretty hard core jihadi fighters. They’re the same people now opposing us.
LAMB: How much of the weaponry they’re using are things that we gave them years ago?
WISSING: I don’t think very much now. New generation.
LAMB: Who’s funding the Taliban?
WISSING: You are, in part.
LAMB: Who else?
WISSING: Well, I spent some time with the Afghan threat finance cell, which is a multiagency group that is headquartered in the embassy in Kabul and that one of their spokespersons told me that they figure the total budget is maybe about $500 million to a billion a year and it comes from a variety of sources, including gulf state donations from Arab states, including the opium trade and including lots of skims from our development and logistic contracts.
LAMB: What’s the story of the 2003 visit of Tommy Thompson who was the head of health and human services for the George Bush administration?
WISSING: Well, there’s a there’s a women’s hospital in Kabul called Rabia Balkhi that became a really case in point to how things could differ so dramatically from what we said they were to what they actually were.
And Tommy Thompson had gotten involved with this project with some help of the military to quote ”modernize” a women’s hospital. Infant mortality is extremely high in Afghanistan. And so we were going to improve it and the answer was, cesarean births, that was what needed to happen.
The problem was in Rabia Balkhi, there was no sanitation. And so, people were defecating in corners, the afterbirth was hauled out in wheelbarrows and dumped out in front of the hospital, women were birthing on plastic sheets one after the other.
I talked to a civil affairs officer who had been part of this and he was told, this is one of our premier projects, you’ve got to make this happen.
And he’s a public health official down in New Mexico now. And he said he’d never seen anything like this and he said, I hope I never have to see this again. The infant mortality rates skyrocketed the same time Tommy Thompson was going around saying we had helped the women of Afghanistan.
LAMB: But, get back to the what’s the motivation? I mean, you’ve seen the polls in this country about people’s attitude toward Afghanistan. Why would the republicans be behind this, why would the democrats, the president be behind this?
WISSING: The other day I was talking to an old Afghanistan hand and he taught me a new word that I had never heard. It’s riefy, R-I-E-F-Y. Do you know reify? I didn’t. I looked it up; he told me what it was.
Riefy is the confusion of a concept with reality. And it seemed I can see he said it was that was the word that everybody was using in Afghanistan, riefy. We were confusing a concept with reality.
So, the thing that sounds so great from the podium at the Pentagon has no correlation with the on ground reality in Afghanistan.
LAMB: Do they not believe it? Are they consciously misleading the American people?
WISSING: We’re in an election cycle and sometimes elections make for bad strategy.
LAMB: What about the go back to the checks and balances of what’s going on. You talked about USAID, congress has been over there, did you run into any of the members of congress?
WISSING: No, I didn’t.
WISSING: No, I didn’t. I did spend some time with some people out of Holbrook’s office. The we’re missing parts. We would send money out but we wouldn’t send people to oversee it. the USAID was given an enormous amount of money, but they had virtually no staff people to oversee it.
So, for instance, at one point each USAID staffer was overseeing $27.5 million worth of contracts where globally the average USAID staffer was overseeing $1.2 million; $27.5 million, $1.2 million.
And it was a war zone, so you couldn’t even get out to look at the project without having a big military escort and we didn’t have many soldiers there. It was tough to do anything, it was tough to oversee it.
I was in one meeting where the brigade commander, an incredibly effective guy name Colonel Mike Howard, this is not long after President Obama took office, and the state department was out there saying, OK, we’re going to give you a whole bunch of development money, you know, it’s counter-insurgency, we’re going to do this, win their hearts and minds, nation build.
And Colonel Howard said, don’t send any more money, send me contract officers that can oversee this stuff. I need people; I don’t need more money. So, people know on the ground.
LAMB: Some time ago, Greg Mortenson sat in your chair there and we talked about Three Cups of Tea and other things and then all of sudden the stories came out that he was misusing the money and we have not heard from him since.
Do you know him, do you know what his impact was over there and what did you think of that whole story?
WISSING: People get incredibly emotional about that story. They we want hope. I actually saw Greg speak just a few weeks before the story broke about the scandal. And it was an absolute overflow crowd of people that were so passionate and enthusiastic. And, of course, the military really embraced Greg.
There were lots of military there, escorts and I believe Admiral Mullen had a video introduction of him before he spoke. And the story never really held water to people who knew about Afghanistan.
When he would talk about where he was abducted and what happened to him and where he was building schools, it never quite added up. But, it was really tough to tell people that because they wanted that story, they wanted that hope, that there was a thing that could be done.
And we want to believe that we can make a difference, we can come in with our way of thinking about things and have this very positive impact.
LAMB: Will we see him again? Had any reaction at all from your early days of having this book from the government?
WISSING: No, but I have heard from a number of the soldiers and the people that I was out with, some of the consultants that were involved with it and they’re very positive, very enthusiastic about it, which is very nice. I feel like I told the truth.
LAMB: You still live in Bloomington, Indiana?
WISSING: I still live in Bloomington, Indiana.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
WISSING: Indiana University.
LAMB: What did you study?
WISSING: History, political science.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
WISSING: I do.
LAMB: How big?
WISSING: I have two sons, two grown sons and I have three grandchildren.
LAMB: The name of the book is Funding the Enemy, subtitle, How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, and our guest has been Douglas A. Wissing. Thank you very much.
WISSING: Thank you.