In this supposedly positive story, “Recruits pour in after Afghan Army offers pay raise,” there was no discussion of a funding source. The Taliban had been paying much more to fighters than the Afghan Army was paying its troops, so recruitment was down for the military until this past week. But the Taliban has an extremely large funding base right now because it has taken control of the poppy/opium supply for the world market – and Afghanistan is the biggest source. Afghanistan’s government, unlike Iraq’s, doesn’t have oil revenues to support a strong central military. The CIA World Factbook mentions very little in the way of non-poppy or foreign aid-related economic sources for Afghanistan, and notes that the poppy trade provides about $3 billion to the country’s (black market) economy.
So, when I was reading this article, I kept trying to think where the money was coming from for this big pay raise. It’s just so convenient that the week after President Obama announces an escalation, which many criticized because the Afghan Army is totally inadequate, that suddenly recruitment over the past week exceeds the whole September recruitment figure and is about 60% of the November figure!
Then, I remembered yesterday’s headline: “Karzai Says Afghan Army Will Need Help Until 2024,” referring to monetary support. Both articles are New York Times, but no mention in today’s article on pay raises. Well, connecting the dots, I made an educated guess that the US just underwrote a big pay raise for the Afghan Army, with very convenient timing. You might think this is good because now the Army will compete with the Taliban in recruiting people and thus security will improve. There’s the big problem, however. We can’t keep underwriting these pay raises forever. The United States is not going to keep fully financing the Afghan Army for fourteen years. We probably can’t afford to. The Taliban, however, has a cash crop that they can keep converting to payroll for their fighters, virtually infinitely unless something dramatic changes with the opium production or markets. The Afghan state has no such resource available.
I don’t know what the solution here is, since I don’t foresee either an immediate end to the US War on Drugs (which some believe would curtail Taliban revenue) or the Afghan government nationalizing poppies as if they were oil or minerals, but it’s unsustainable to keep throwing money at the Afghan Army. What makes 2024 the magic number anyway? There’s still no big revenue source available to the Afghan government in 2024, and so the Army would still run out of money. And then we’re back at square one.
This piece was originally published at Starboard Broadside.