An Afghanistan Exit Strategy: Buying Off the Taliban?

An Afghanistan Exit Strategy: Buying Off the Taliban?

By measure both of blood and of treasure, the war in Afghanistan is a
costly business. To date, 782 U.S. troops have been killed there, and the
conflict is costing Washington $4 billion a month. Is that a good
investment? Some suggest it may be a lot more cost-effective to simply pay
those currently earning their keep as gunmen for the Taliban to stay out of
the fight.

The notion may have gained more traction Thursday after a reporter asked
Defense Secretary Robert Gates how much longer U.S. troops will have to
keep fighting in the now eight-year-old Afghan war. Gates, recalling his
years as a top CIA official, said the war’s end date is one of those
national-security “mysteries” where there are “too many variables to predict.”

Uncertainties are unavoidable in war, of course. One of them is the exact number of bad guys in Afghanistan, many of whom are paid to fight, and just how much their
paymasters are spending on them. But a new report from the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week says that U.S. commanders
commonly refer to the “$10 Taliban” — alluding to the amount
insurgents earn each day from Taliban coffers swelled by drug proceeds and
Islamist benefactors. That’s more than an Afghan cop makes. “They can collect double or triple pay for
planting an improvised explosive device,” the report adds. And how many fighters are on the
Taliban payroll Earlier this year, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s
interior minister, estimated during a visit to Washington that there are
between 10,000 and 15,000 Taliban fighting his government and its U.S.

That makes a quick cost-benefit analysis possible. While plainly some Taliban are
an ideologically committed hard core that won’t lay down their guns, a lot
— perhaps most — would presumably stop attacking U.S. and allied forces if
they could earn more from it than they currently do for fighting. Vice President Joe Biden has estimated that only 5% of those fighting for the Taliban are “incorrigible, not susceptible to anything other than being defeated,” while 70% are only in it for the money. The remaining 25%, he said, fall in between. So, if the U.S. opted to pay all Taliban fighters $20 a day — double what they get now — to stop fighting, that would amount to a $300,000 daily bill, or one-fifth of 1% of the war’s current cost to the U.S. taxpayer of $133 million a day. The monthly cost of buying off the Taliban rank and file would be $9 million, less than the price of a single AH-64 Apache helicopter.

“The U.S. could put all the Taliban fighters on its payroll at twice the
daily rate [that they earn in the insurgency], withdraw all
[American] forces except those needed to guard the paymasters, and
buy the insurgency at less cost than maintaining forces, Burger King,
Popeye’s, defense contractors and Nautilus equipment in Bagram,” the key
U.S. military base in Afghanistan, writes John McCreary, a former senior
Pentagon intelligence analyst. “If the Taliban can buy fighters” he writes
in his daily intel blog NightWatch, “the U.S. should be able to outbid the
Taliban for the same men.”

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. As McCreary explains, the U.S.
did something very similar in Iraq, paying as many as 100,000 Sunni insurgents $300
a month to stop fighting. That worked out to about $1 million a day — the
price of a

single Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle. The U.S. has now shipped
more than 10,000 MRAPs to Iraq and Afghanistan, making clear just how much
of a bargain the U.S. got when it bought off much of Iraq’s insurgency.

See pictures of the training of Afghanistan soldiers.See pictures of hidden Afghanistan.