Douglas Wissing on Afghanistan

The perfect war: “Everybody makes money.”

Doug Wissing and I have met often over lunch in downtown Bloomington, Indiana, to talk about our writing projects ­– none more interesting than his most recent book, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban. – Carol Polsgrove, June 2012


A captain in the National Guard told you, “It’s a perfect war. Everybody makes money,” which turned out to be the theme of your book. Did he have any idea that he was going to end up in a book?

Douglas Wissing with Hoosiers in Afghanistan

He knew I was a journalist. Everybody knew I was a journalist. And it had been a rough day. It had been a rough night. It was in a province called Laghmanthat was going to hell in a handcart and the artillery was going off all the time, and the rapid response teams were having to go out because of ambushes. He looked pretty rough. He had been a Las Vegas cop. He was a big tall guy, had a big lantern jaw. We were standing in front of this funky old plywood hut that one of those military-industrial companies had thrown up all over Afghanistan. And he points back to this moldering little building and he says, “You know what they charge us for this? $28,000. It’s a play house.” He started talking about how he’d been a drug cop in Las Vegas and this was just like the Mafia in Vegas. Everybody’s in on the cut, the Afghan government’s in on the cut, the military. He said, “I’ve been in the army since we were fighting the Russians. I’ve never had this much good stuff – all these battlefield commissions. The military’s doing great with this, the military-industrial complex, the Afghan government, the Taliban’s in on the take. He said, “It’s the perfect war. Everybody’s making money.”

Was that the moment you knew you had a book to write? You started out over there reporting on agricultural work that was being done by an Indiana National Guard unit, but at some point you saw that there was a bigger subject. Can you pinpoint the time when you began to see that?

At the time I embedded with an agribusiness development team, it seemed like it would be an interesting window into a lot of aspects of the war. We were based in Khost Province, which was the most violent province in Afghanistan. And this team was rare – 90 percent of the American soldiers never leave the base, they never “break the wire” is the term. They’re hunkered on these Fort Apache bases all over Afghanistan. But the agribusiness development team was unusual in that it had its own security, and it had its own armored transportation, and so it could go out on missions into this effectively Taliban-controlled area to do development projects.

And we would go out into villages that were essentially Taliban controlled villages, meet with the village elders surrounded by our security platoon. We’d all be wearing 50 pounds of body armor and we would meet with them and say, “Hey, would you like for us to teach you how to make better wheat? Or would you like an irrigation dam?” It gave mea great lens to look at development, to look at “winning hearts and minds,” the effectiveness of it, the challenges of it. This war has tried to coordinate civilian agencies with the military in a way that we haven’t seen since Vietnam.

When you started out, were you aware that all this richness was there, or was that an awareness that grew as you reported the story?

I often never know exactly what I’m going to be reporting. I go out with a fairly open mind.

What did you think you were reporting when you started out? What drew you to the story? You’ve done a lot of different things – you’ve done travel writing, you’ve written about Indiana beer, you’ve written about a missionary to Tibet, Dr. Shelton. What drew you to this story of the Hoosier farmers going to Afghanistan?

In a way it’s a similar story to Dr. Albert Shelton. I wrote this book, Pioneer in Tibet: the Life and Perils of Dr. Albert Shelton, which was about a man from Indiana who was a doctor, who went out in that great Victorian-era crusade of the missionaries into the undeveloped world. And in Dr. Shelton’s case he went out to an area of eastern Tibet called Kham, which was a very wild area – also a warrior society. The Khampas are the holy warriors of Tibetan Buddhism as the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are the holy warriors of fundamentalist Islam. He was attempting to Christianize and introduce scientific education into a very, very traditional society, which is very akin to what the U.S. government through its military and diplomatic efforts was trying to do in a very, very fundamentalist part of the Muslim world.

So the parallels were the same. And how they were going to play out I didn’t know, but when I was out there, I became friends with a man named Colonel Brian Copes, who was the commander of the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team, and at one point Brian said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, I just ask a lot of questions and a narrative emerges,” and that was really what I was doing. I had some story ideas in terms of small segments of what I knew would be there ­– stories about soldiers, stories about their families, stories about the challenges of combat.

 You were doing these partly for the public radio station in Bloomington, and you did some magazine pieces, so you were there as a freelance embedded reporter with assignments from different places. When you got back and started interviewing people in DC, was it hard to get interviews when you weren’t on staff of the New York Times or whatever? Was it hard as a freelancer to get through to people?

I don’t have a basis of comparison. This is what I’ve always done. I have contributed to a lot of publications, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, BBC, and I reference those. I tell people, “I am an independent journalist. This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, these are the stories I’ve covered, and this is what I’m interested in.” It always takes a while because there are gatekeepers in any organization. But I interviewed two congressmen two weeks ago and three generals for an article. The generals are running major operations out of Afghanistan. For me it’s most important that the voices of those kinds of people are co-mingled with the voices on the ground – the grunts, the development workers, the kitchen worker from Texas who’s stuck on this little fort. The story is all mixed up in those kinds of things – what it looks like from behind the walls in the embassy versus what it’s like on the front line.

And that comes through in the book. There are lots of small profiles of individuals who are in Afghanistan doing various things, and lots of scenes, which I expect were more fun to write than the history of bureaucracy, which is also part of the book. You did a lot of research to show how the bureaucracy of war, the military and civilian agencies, worked together or failed to work together, the confusion, lack of accountability, lack of knowing whether what they were doing was doing any good. I might have pulled my hair before the end of writing this book because there was a lot of detail to get control of as you worked through documents. What did you do keep your spirits up as you went through all that stuff?

(Laughs) I’m just a dog with a bone. I locked in on it and knew what it was. Once I had been out there a few times and the soldiers started telling me about this toxic system, this matrix that was failing so miserably, and watching soldiers get killed and wounded and the money just flooding away and not doing any good, I knew the story was there. I knew it was there in all the documents. I knew there was a failed system and I just had to dig through it, and there was no other way to do it but to sit there with mountains of documents, and talk to hundreds of people, and keep the list and keep going, and find that person to transfer me to that person to that person, and suddenly you’d be talking to somebody in the embassy that really knew what was going on, knew where all the skeletons hung in which closets and wanted to talk about it.

And it seemed like a really important story for the American people to know. It didn’t bear any relationship to what was said from the podiums in Washington. I just covered the NATO summit in Chicago. To a certain extent I was trying to understand why the coverage had been so bad. So I got media credentials and went there with the 2,000 other international journalists and we went into the vast football sized media hall where everyone was fed very well, until it would come up to those little moments when they would squeeze out a dollop of news for the news cycle, and reporters would all scurry off to repeat it. And by the end I had an idea of why the coverage of the Afghanistan war was as bad as it had been.

Is it just because reporters just take the official handouts? Did you not run into reporters when you were out in the field in Afghanistan?

Remarkably few. And they were most often sequestered. The military really does an excellent job of keeping people inside the fence. And they didn’t really want to ask to many questions, because their careers were dependent on them having further access.

 So you had the advantage as a freelancer that this was one story and after this you were going to move on to some other topic. You didn’t have to stay friends with these people?

I don’t know if “friends” is the right word.

 On good terms.

“On good terms” is a better one. There needs to be mutual respect, and I think that’s the constant challenge, the ultimate challenge, with everybody, whoever you’re talking to, to maintain an equilibrium that allows you to have that, because that’s really where you get the freest flow of ideas. And when you lose it then people stop talking, either if they feel like you’re looking up to them or looking down at them.

 What did you find you had to do for the first time? You had not really been an investigative reporter.

It all looks the same to me. It’s all research, it’s all digging in. There was a famous anthropologist who was here once talking about travel writing being indistinguishable from the best of anthropology. I think of Johnny Apple who was such a great reporter in Vietnam and was such a great food reporter. And Johnny’s ways of attacking the thing were always the same. He was after the best jumbalaya in south Louisiana. It was that same kind of dogged determination.

You got into this writing and reporting business pretty late in life. How old were you when we first talked? You were about to set off to Tibet and other points.

I was probably in my 40s then.

And what had you done up to then?

I owned a printing company, I owned a graphic arts company.

Had you always wanted to write?

That’s what I always knew I was going to do. I always said as soon as my kids were through college ­– I had my kids young – I would take up writing and be a writer.

And you did. What have you liked best about it?

I think what I’ve liked the best is getting to ask people about the thing they’re most passionate about, whatever that is, and to be connected to that moment where they get to express what really defines their being.

 What are you working on now?

I’m still doing a lot of work on Afghanistan.

You’ve written op-ed pieces for US World Report, Fox News, Foreign Policy. You’ve been on C-Span. You’re a definitely a presence on the web with this book.

A lot of my focus is on that. I’m thinking about some other projects. I’ve been thinking about a book ­– the working title in my mind is When the Troops Come Home, about the prices that we pay for having such a militarized society, both among the troops and their families and the larger societal prices, how it shapes our culture, how it bleeds over into various aspects. Less than one percent of the population wears the military uniform now. It has become something that we have isolated. For so much of America, they really don’t have to be connected to what this is. And one of the great things about being where I was in Afghanistan – it was the pointy end of the spear. This is what the empire looks like right here.

Americans may not be very connected to the Americans who are fighting over in these places, but as you point out in the book, US taxpayer money in itstrillionsthat has gone in that direction could have done a lot in this country. What do you think would have to happen before Americans became really aware of the high cost to American society of our military adventures?

Much as I hate to say it– reinstate the draft. Then they would pay attention because it would be their sons and daughters. Right now it’s somebody else’s.

You don’t think the money itself is a message – that if people understood that if that money were going into fixing bridges and paying teachers higher salaries, fixing the things that need fixing in this country, they would say, “Hm, we’d rather have it here at home.”

Well, certainly this book is an effort to explain that to people – that these things are connected. It’s hard to grasp. These are gargantuan numbers. We spend about 2 billion dollars a week in a country where people make an average of $400 a year. If Vietnam was the quagmire, then this is a sandpit. Soldiers talk about the trillions that are getting poured into the sandpit. And I think the American people – increasingly they are paying attention. You can see it in the polls. Support for the war is plummeting. People do understand that these things are connected. It took me an embarrassingly long time to understand why this war persisted in the way it has for as long as it has – ten, eleven years. About three o’clock in the morning when I was in the midst of this book, thinking really hard – how can this be going on like this for so long? And I woke up and I thought, Oh, there are a lot of beneficiaries here. Everybody’s making money. It’s a good gig, even down to the lowest security soldiers. These are most often young males, eighteen, nineteen years old, they’re working in Dairy Queens, or they’re working as stock boys. And they can go out on a combat gig and when it’s all said and done, they’re making 30 or 40 thousand a year, which for a young guy out of a small town in the south, in southern Indiana, it’s a lot of money.

So there’s a clear connection between a shattered economy in the U.S. and the presence of its victims?

Oh yeah, we have to remember that there are more private contractors in Afghanistan than there are soldiers, so there are well over a hundred thousand Americans that are plumbers, cooks, mechanics, and they’re all over the place, and they’re making a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year, and they’re really cranky, they’re out on terrible bases, and it’s really boring and it’s dirty and grungy and dangerous and rocket attacks happen and they’re a long way from home, and the SKYPE doesn’t work very well, and they’re stuck out there. They’ve got medical problems out here, they’ve got alimony, their kids in jail for drug problems, fill in the blank, I’ve heard a bunch of them. But it’s big money.

You have to understand none of this is sustainable. We’ve given these Afghans incredible equipment, but the literacy rate is minuscule, so we might give them sophisticated equipment, but if there aren’t specialists and technicians there to keep them up, I can only imagine the uses of a lot of this very sophisticated equipment because people can’t read, they don’t have the technical skills.

 You question the whole idea that development results in a more stable region. Apparently that’s an idea that some development people themselves share.

I reported on a number of development experts who point out that there is no research that actually supports the assertion that development equals improved security. It was a faith-based initiative that had a lot of profit built into it, and the aid organizations sold that idea to Congress, that this would work, it would actually bring us more peace, more security. There’s been no documentation and indeed there is at least as much documentation indicating that large amounts of badly administered development funds lead to insecurity as people squabble for it. I’ve seen it on a minuscule level, where you start digging a well in a village – what could be nicer? Arid land, dig a well. The problem is, who controls the well? On what side of the village is it? Who’s the guy that’s going to be in charge? Does he leave? Does he then sell the well? Does he use it all to flood his fields? Does it lower the water table, which then means someone else’s field becomes not an arable field anymore. There are just implications that happen one after the other. The law of unintended results gets played out in front of your eyes.

Funding the Enemy hit a snag on its way to publication when your original publisher went out of business. How did you feel when that happened? You were already well into the work on the book. What was like to feel the rug pulled out from under you?

I had one advantage in that I have just a tremendous agent, Jill Marr at Sandra Djikstra Agency out in California, who I just have the greatest admiration for. I had faith in Jill. She said we would find another publisher. And I had the same faith I had initially – that this was an important story. I knew what I had. I knew what people had told me. I knew it was something that would find a way to come out. I didn’t know exactly how. And Jill indeed did find another good publisher, and I just kept going, while Jill was finding another publisher – because I was a dog with a bone.

For more on Douglas Wissing and his work, see his website.  Photo by Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team.

Write to Douglas Wissing or Carol Polsgrove