Following the money in America's most expensive war

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks past a sunlit wall in Herat province on May 10, 2014. Afghanistan remains at war, with civilians among the hardest hit as the Taliban wage an increasingly bloody insurgency against the government.

Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.”

It’s a phrase you hear a lot when people talk about our more than a decade of involvement in Afghanistan. And Anand Gopal thinks it’s a bad one.

“There is a sense that whatever happened in Afghanistan was inevitable,” says Gopal, author of the new book "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes". But we had many opportunities to get this right.”

Gopal learned the Afghan language Pashto, and traveled the country by motorcycle to research his book. He says that the U.S. made a mistake in funding Afghan warlords to help fight the Taliban.

“A lot of these militia commanders and warlords are not that much better than the Taliban they replaced... That’s creating support for the insurgency and draining resources. Without us paying them, these guys are not going to continue  fighting.”

The Afghan economy relies almost entirely on the opium trade and foreign aid. But Gopal says all the U.S. money flowing into the country doesn’t guarantee the government’s survival.

“If you take billions upon billions of dollars and put it into a country that has very little capacity to absorb it, you create corruption on an unforeseen scale. If you talk to Afghans today they’ll say that the last 10 years have been more corrupt than anything they’ve seen in the previous 20 or 30 years of fighting.”

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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