Five Eyes intelligence failure in Afghanistan, or something worse?

Sep 16, 2021
An illustrative photo of an Apache helicopter
(Image: Unpslash)

If corruption was central to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and US intelligence ignored it, what should become of the Five Eyes alliance?

In the stampede of analysis and blame to explain the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and conversely, the debacle and defeat of the Afghan army and its western patrons, there is a unanimous consensus that corruption was central to it all and yet, perversely, it was also a studiously ignored factor by the US intelligence agencies (and perhaps by the remaining four of the Five Eyes partners?).

What, then, of this lauded “jewel in the crown” of the alliance if it failed to warn of that Afghanistan’s soldiers were unwilling to fight, kill and maybe die for what was, essentially, a criminal cartel?

What needs to be clear from the start is that it is not just corruption that reflects badly on Five Eyes. All of the fault-finding accounts point to factors which, logically, imply a litany of flaws in the intelligence analysis and findings relating to Afghanistan: misreading the geopolitical realities of the region, misjudgements, and missteps – all of which contributed to the mismanagement and waste of resources, shortcomings of policy and, more bluntly, strategic blunders.

Few accounts, however, grasp the significance of corruption, specifically, that the government of Afghanistan was an enterprise that had more in common with Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, Stidda, Sacra Corona, and Società foggiana.

The few that were alive to this and took steps to counter it reported it within the US command system and in widespread media publications.

One of the more outstanding investigators in this field was Sarah Chayes who, from 2002-2007, ran development organisations is Kandahar and subsequently was appointed as a special assistant to two commanders of the inter national military forces in Afghanistan, and the the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[For those unable to access her recent article behind the paywall in Foreign Affairs, a very similar account is available from her website].

What Chayes describes in some detail is rampant, endemic corruption running, in 2010, to somewhere between US$2 and 5 billion annually. Its origins are to be found in the US intervention in Afghanistan and was thriving from 2002 on. Of this, as she (and others researching among the general population) makes clear, the US agencies and command structure were aware when they wanted to be, or dismissive, because they chose to be ignorant. Either way they were complicit in a national, networked system of diversified business which were parasitic upon the population and totally prejudicial to the mission at hand.

Especially galling to read are the warnings of this system’s inevitable disastrous consequences, and recommendations to counter them, which were passed up the command structure in 2007 but were ultimately acted on only in the form of public relations exercises. These defaults, moreover, were perpetrated by four successive administrations despite the fact that the US had intelligence capabilities which could map the networks of corruption and thus thwart and/or sanction its beneficiaries.

In Washington, DC, the case had already been made through and by other sources no later than 2009. In Bob Woodward’s, Obama’s Wars, he details a White House meeting on October 9, President Barack Obama was told by General David Petraeus that, yes, the government in Kabul was a “criminal syndicate;” by the then ambassador to Afghanistan, General Carl Eikenberry, that he would challenge even the assumption that the US and that “extraordinarily corrupt” government were even aligned, and by Special Envoy Richard Holbrook, that the “US presence is the corrupting force.”

For those who find the testimony of individuals unconvincing, the case is made beyond doubt in the form of the reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Individually and collectively, and at considerable length, they catalogue what the country had become: a “gallery of greed,” for all who operated there, and they predicted with great accuracy what eventually happened.

It could hardly have been otherwise: Corruption in the Afghan army included but was limited to: tens of thousand of ghost soldiers whose pay-checks were directed to their commanders; under-paying or not paying those that did exist for the same purpose, and the redirection of food and ammunition, again for the same purpose. Others, such as military contractors eventually paid Taliban commanders not to attack their supply convoys.

All the while, the bare costs mounted: Well over 72,000 military personnel, and at least 50,000 civilians killed.

While there is a raft of questions that demand answers five seem to command priority.

The first is this: is it remotely possible that, over the with years Australia was in Uruzgan, its intelligence capabilities (military and civilian) were unaware of the profound and fundamental forces which would bring about defeat?

The second is: if they were, then why?

Third, did they know but did not communicate their knowledge to those who needed it to make decisions effecting life and death?

Fourth, if they did now, did they communicate their knowledge to those who needed it, but who rejected it?

Fifth, if it was rejected, was it because there was an override – blind loyalty to the Australia-US alliance – which reduced the intelligence into a corpus of inconvenient truths – in which case is another case of the relationship’s periodic demand for blood sacrifice?

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