After twenty years and trillions flowing through the Pentagon’s war chest, the real winners were thousands of private military contractors that profited immensely.
The Taliban’s stunning takeover of Afghanistan in the aftermath of a bungling US departure has led many to conclude the war in Afghanistan ended in failure. But it is unlikely to be a view shared by many in the US military.
For them, the twenty-year-long conflict has been a massive success.
When discussing the politics of war, a central premise is often put forward: Cui bono? Who benefits? John Boyd, a former Air Force fighter pilot famously expounded on a theory where there was no contradiction between the military’s stated mission and disregard for combat success:
“People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy,” he said. “They are wrong. The Pentagon does have a strategy. It is ‘Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.’”
And add to it they did.
Since the Authorization for Use of Military Force in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was signed on September 18, 2001 by president George W Bush, the US spent $2.26 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, or $300 million a day. Roughly $800 billion was funneled into direct war-fighting costs and $85 billion to train the now vanquished Afghan army.
The war effort in Afghanistan was effectively a privatised endeavor, with the US military relying on private security contractors to power the logistics of America’s “forever war”. (Many foreign contractors are now stranded in places like Dubai following the rapid US withdrawal.)
It was a profiteering exercise that stretched till the very end. Amid news of the US-announced withdrawal by the end of August, a parting $450 million deal for 37 UH-60 helicopters was shortly struck. UH-60s are manufactured by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin-owned firm.
As Alexander Cockburn wrote last month, such a deal was yet another “reminder of the war’s real, squalid history, so tragic for so many Afghans, so profitable for some Americans.”
The world’s largest defence spender by a wide margin, American companies account for almost 60 percent of total arms sales by the world’s 100 largest defence contractors.
Many of them have been cashing in on huge checks from the Pentagon’s war budget for years, with a majority of the near $5 trillion spent on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq transferred to military contractors, whose workers outnumbered soldiers in Afghanistan three to one.
In addition to giants like Lockheed Martin, DynCorp, Academi (formerly Blackwater), Black & Veatch – and oil companies like ExxonMobil which shipped the fuel on which the army runs – are just some to have profited immensely from Washington’s lucrative contracts.
To understand the sheer scale of the contractor economy across three theatres where their footprint is most prominent – Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – the US Department of Defense confirmed using the services of over 27,000 contractors as of the fourth fiscal quarter of 2020.
Furthermore, the Pentagon’s “revolving door” between the security establishment, Congress and Corporate America only perpetuated the war machine, allowing a multitude of parties to feed at the Pentagon’s bloated war chest trough.
An investigation by the watchdog Project on Government Oversight found that between 2008-2018 around 380 high-ranking officials and officers had become government lobbyists, defence contractor consultants, or board members and executives within two years of leaving the military.
In the 2005 documentary Why We Fight, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Karen Kwiatkowski said: “American people who have a son or a daughter that’s going to be deployed…they look at the cost-benefit, and they go ‘I don’t think that’s good.’ But when politicians who understand contracts, future contracts, when they look at war, they have a different cost-benefit analysis.”
To put this war profiteering into perspective, if one had purchased $10,000 of stocks and evenly divided among those top five defence contractors – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics – it would now be worth almost $100,000, a greater return than the rest of the S&P over the last two decades.