Afghanistan Exit Strategy: Buying Off the Taliban?

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Reuters / Corbis

Taliban militants appear at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan

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 far 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, Aug. 13, 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" for which 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 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. So how many fighters are on the Taliban payroll? Earlier this year during a visit to Washington, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's Interior Minister, estimated there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Taliban fighting his government and its U.S. allies.

That makes a quick cost-benefit analysis possible. While plainly some Taliban members are an ideologically committed hard core who 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 that 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 in it only 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. taxpayers 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. military 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 (MRAP). The U.S. has 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.