The high cost of war


Billions of dollars are being spent in Afghanistan by NATO forces on everything from fuel, transportation and security to food, salaries and entertainment for thousands of troops. Outside the wire, the average family subsists on about $2 per day

Summer in southern Afghanistan is a blast furnace. Temperatures rise over 50C. Air conditioning is what allows the frenzied pace of NATO's war during the fighting season. The price is astronomical. The Americans have calculated that in the past
two years they have spent $20 billion on AC. If you add the rest of NATO, that figure is probably well over $24 billion. That means that coalition forces spend more to keep themselves cool each year than Afghanistan's gross national product.
Every drop of fuel, drinking water as well as every morsel of food consumed on NATO bases is imported into this landlocked country
- most of it trucked in through Pakistan. The cost is enormous.
This year the U.S. Congress approved $113 billion U.S. for Afghanistan, which is five times Canada's total defence budget.
From October 2010 to May, the U.S. alone spent $1.5 billion on 329.8 million gallons of fuel to operate its generators, vehicles and aircraft in Afghanistan, according to an article in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. This works out to $4.55 per gallon, which is not excessive. But it does not include the high cost of getting that fuel through a war zone. According to Stars and Stripes, that increased the price tenfold.
Western companies have the transportation contracts. They pay Afghan security companies to assure the safety of shipments. Afghan security companies, often owned by warlords and prominent government officials, pay Taliban leaders not to attack them. In this way, western money helps support the insurgency.
One former Taliban commander, who had participated in beheadings of unco-operative villagers, told me that not all insurgent leaders - including him - are prepared to accept money from the security contractors. It seemed to be a moral issue for him. Perhaps this explains why suicide bombers this month attacked a fuel depot four kilometres outside Kandahar Airfield. Either that or the security companies hadn't paid up.
Given the high cost and the vital importance of fuel, you would think the military would not want to waste it. Not at all. High-ranking officers such as Canadian Brig.-Gen. Charles Lamarre, who is in charge of packing and moving Canadian equipment out of Kandahar, are driven around the base in armoured Toyota Landcruisers with V8 engines and their own drinking water coolers.
The lowest ranks have to walk. Civilians drive large fleets of Toyota HiLux pickup trucks, once the preferred vehicle of the Taliban.
The speed limit on military bases here is 20 km/h.
Leased cars and trucks are big business. Many vehicles are second-hand, shipped in through Pakistan. One military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said when U.S. investigators checked the vehicle identification numbers on the SUVs leased for the military they discovered many had been stolen in the United States.
Afghanistan produces large amounts of fruits and vegetables, but the handling of this food does not meet military health standards. The two main beneficiaries of the food-management contracts are an Amsterdam-based company called Supreme Group, which also supplies fuel, and the U.S. company KBR.
They serve up four meals a day. U.S. soldiers seemed to have the biggest appetites. They order up as many as eight eggs for breakfast plus sausage and bacon. Lunch and dinner are a selection of fish, beef, pork and chicken.
Hamburgers, hotdogs and french fries are staples. Dessert consists of ice cream and a selection of cakes and puddings.
A lot of the food ends up in the garbage.
KBR also has the multibilliondollar NATO contract to operate Afghanistan's three largest military airfields: Kabul, Kandahar and Bastion.
War is good business. KBR alone earned $13.1 billion U.S. from 2007 to 2009 from its logistics and maintenance operations in the Middle East, primarily in Afghanistan, according to its latest financial report.
Kandahar Airfield is one of the busiest airports in the world because of its 24/7 operations of military aircraft. Despite the gradual withdrawal of Canadian, Dutch and U.S. forces, the base continues to grow. It is now a small NATO city of about 30,000 troops and still expanding. The city has its own industrial park with two cement factories run by a Turkish company.
The base has it own central square with fast-food outlets and various stores selling audio equipment, cellphones, jewellery, rugs, scarves, clothing, toiletry items, sunglasses and bottled drinks (no alcohol). There are several barber and beauty shops. For recreation there are six gymnasiums, basketball courts, Canada's ball hockey rink plus rooms for pool, movies and games.
The base's latest addition is a football field. It has been months in the making with bulldozers and excavators, rollers and countless dump trucks carrying loads of crushed stone brought in to create the level playing field. As of this writing, the field was still awaiting its artificial turf.
The vast majority of civilian workers come from outside Afghanistan and have to be rotated through on tours. They pay no taxes to the Afghan government. In the case of Canadian employees, 80 per cent of their salaries are tax free if they stay more than six months.
According to the U.S. government, the annual cost of keeping a soldier in Afghanistan is $667,000. Some soldiers earn a good salary. Canadian soldiers told me that with danger pay they can make close to $100,000 a year.
SNC-Lavalin Defence Programs Inc. and the PAE Government Services of Arlington, Va., jointly hold the contract to maintain the Canadian army's base operations. The value of the contract, which began Jan. 2, 2003, is $400 million.
Meanwhile, outside the wire is a different story . ?Afghanistan is among the world's poorest countries. The average daily wage for a labourer is $2 and millions of families have barely enough to eat. Only about 10 per cent of Afghan households are connected to an electricity grid and those who are connected suffer regular blackouts.
After 10 years of war, the plight of women seems to worsen. Few women are seen in public in Kandahar City, the birthplace of the Taliban. Those who venture out are mostly widows covered in light blue burkas reduced to begging to feed themselves and their families.
"Things are getting worse and worse for women," a Kandahar City businessman told me.
Since Sept. 26, 2006, the Taliban have shot 11 women in Kandahar. Over the past six weeks, insurgents shot dead two young women, one of whom worked for the government and the other for an NGO, in central Kandahar City.
The list of murdered women includes three police officers, the director of the department of women's affairs, the only female member of the Kandahar provincial council, a midwife who worked in a health clinic outside Kandahar City, a woman who worked for the department of labour and social affairs and a woman who worked for a subcontractor of USAID.
Also during this period, men on motorcycles attacked seven girls walking to a school in Kandahar City by throwing acid in their faces. Four girls had to be hospitalized. Females teachers also were attacked.
The intimidation has worked. Fewer and fewer women go to school, according to government officials.
Over the past two years, the surge of U.S. troops in Kandahar and Helmand provinces has pushed the Taliban out of many of the districts where the insurgency has been the most persistent and effective.
The overwhelming NATO ground and air power coupled with the success of intelligence gathering, surveillance drones and night attacks by special forces have smashed the Taliban's attack forces.
Drones allow coalition forces to track insurgents, pinpoint their locations. Jet fighters, attack helicopters and/or Special Operations Forces are then sent out to arrest or kill them.
The Americans build small forward bases in the areas they clear, making it difficult for the Taliban to return and allowing villages to return to normal life.
Statistics show that Kandahar and Helmand provinces have seen increased violence over the past year, but this is primarily because of the surge.
Most recent NATO statistics show that the violence is beginning to wane.
The Taliban have fled to Kandahar City, where they believe they can hide and where their choice of weapon is the suicide bomber.
But even here, Afghan forces are effectively routing them out.
Two weeks ago the National Directorate of Security seized 33 suicide vests and 1,000 kilograms of explosives hidden in a minivan on the highway between Kandahar and Zabul province. The NDS said the vests came from "outside the country," which usually means Pakistan.
NATO, led by the Americans, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to build Afghanistan's government institutions. Yet voting fraud has paralyzed the Afghan parliament as lawmakers grapple with their own legitimacy. President Hamid Karzai primarily exercises power through regional strongmen, thus often undermining what institutions exist.
The insurgents target the strongmen and their supporters, making governance that much more difficult.
Sometimes, however, attacks appear totally random and without clear motivation. This week an IED placed in an ironmonger's shop killed the owner and a child and wounded four other civilians in a village in Helmand province.
There is no reliable court system in Afghanistan . ?Prosecutors
are considered corrupt. Police are incapable of building cases. Witnesses often refuse to co-operate. So when justice occurs, it is swift and often violent.
When the Taliban this week shot dead a 60-year-old man - for no apparent reason - the victim's two sons dragged the killers off their motorcycle and, with the help of other villagers, stoned them to death.
There is no front line in this war. You don't know where the danger will come from or when. Some people call it the wild west.
It's not. It's much more perverse. It's psychopaths and tyrants whose mentality dates to the dark ages but with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests and any other weapon they can get their hands on claiming to be the servants of God.

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