Cash as an Instrument of War

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

U.S. policy makers have invested enormous energy since 9/11 in understanding the new strategic terrain and how best to operate within it. Winning over local populations and “turning” insurgents has become more important than killing. Avoiding civilian casualties—always an implicit objective—is now an explicit strategic linchpin. In this environment, money is a subtle and potentially effective means of achieving what bombs and bullets cannot. Unfortunately, some fail to appreciate the value of cash in war.

In October 2009, the Italian government received sharp public criticism for allegedly paying Taliban fighters in Afghanistan not to attack Italian forces deployed in the Sarobi area near Kabul. Italian officials vehemently denied the accusation, calling it “offensive.” Days later, according to Agence France-Presse, an unidentified senior Afghan army official said that most NATO forces regularly pay off insurgents to prevent attacks on their troops. The report was affirmed during an Al-Jazeera interview with Saif-Allah Jalili, the Taliban commander of the Kabul district. Senior Canadian defense representatives, questioned by journalists from the Toronto Star, strongly denied their involvement and denounced it as flatly unethical for a professional military to buy off its adversaries.

Whether the allegations are true remains debatable. What is beyond doubt is that French forces who followed the Italians in Sarobi underestimated the threat and lost ten soldiers to ambush. It is further evident—based on the emphatic Italian and Canadian disavowals—that the mere thought of military forces using cash to buy off potential adversaries can be reflexively repulsive.

Money has the potential to do what bombs and bullets can’t. Using it, however, requires a shift in thinking.

Flash forward just three months. In late January, elders from the Pashtun Shinwari tribe—estimated to number four hundred thousand—agreed to support the U.S.-backed Afghan government, battle insurgents, and even join the Afghan military in the event of a Taliban attack. All this for $1 million. Then, during the international summit on Afghanistan policy in London that month, President Hamid Karzai unveiled a new strategy focused on reconciliation with his “disenchanted brothers.” Governments hailed the plan to win over Taliban fighters with economic inducements and pledged $140 million in the first year alone. The results remain to be seen.

Behavior denounced as unseemly bribery just a few months before was now a wise and laudable incentive. Certainly there were differences. Karzai’s large-scale Taliban rehabilitation offered a hope of results more enduring than those of the alleged mafia-like protection scheme in Sarobi. Localized plans, such as the purported Italian job, might only transfer fighters and risk from one district or province to another. But the strategies resembled each other at the core. Italian forces were accused of bankrolling current or potential armed adversaries to make them not fight; similar in nature, the Shinwari deal and Karzai’s proposal were just more palatable to discerning tastes.


Warfare has long offered distinct advantages to those with access to capital and the willingness to use it creatively. The Spartans of the Peloponnesian War transformed themselves into seafaring warriors on the backs of mercenary oarsmen and triremes paid for with Persian gold. European settlers bought security by plying American Indian tribes with trinkets and, during the subsequent conquest of North America, employed Indian guides and warriors to conquer their Indian neighbors. The Cold War remained tepid in part because the United States and the Soviet Union paid proxies to fight for them. In light of war’s exigencies and the proven value of financial resources, why should we not expect the current generation of combat commanders to employ cash unabashedly, and imaginatively, as they see fit?

Elders from the Shinwari tribe—with 400,000 members—agreed to support the U.S.-backed Afghan government, fight insurgents, and even join the Afghan military in the event of a Taliban attack. At $1 million, this was a bargain.

One objection is a common cross-cultural viewpoint that places great value on martial virtue firmly rooted in individual risk-taking, masculine strength, and physical exertion. David stood tall against long odds to slay Goliath. The victorious Greek phalanx comprised “better” men who pushed harder and stabbed truer. Set-piece Napoleonic-era infantry engagements demanded courage and cohesion in the face of withering artillery and cavalry assaults. Standard-bearers of martial virtue cringe at the thought of military commanders paying opponents not to fight, just as they would scoff if David had paid off the Philistine giant.

Ideals of martial virtue retain their potency. Islamic extremists, Osama bin Laden chief among them, interpreted U.S. departures from Lebanon and Somalia as signs of American cowardice, which only encouraged future attacks. Even the use of remotely piloted vehicles—distinctly military weapons—in the tribal wilds of Pakistan has caused some to question America’s gallantry. The image of a soldier swinging a purse instead of forged steel is distasteful to traditional sensibilities.

But such ideals are not static. What was once unthinkable—commoner peltasts harassing the phalanx of the land-holding elite, or English peasant archers slaughtering heavily armored French aristocracy—becomes a new way of war. In the milieu of human conflict, efficacy must and will overcome tradition . . . at least for the winner.

Another important reason for the apparent psychological constraints on the use of cash in battle is a lack of understanding of the complexity of the modern battlefield and the military role on it. The traditional view is that military forces only kill, destroy, occupy, or threaten to do so. Twenty-first-century hybrid war indeed demands a military capable of killing, destroying, and occupying, but it also requires the capacity to reconstruct, negotiate, mediate, and even co-opt. In areas of the world where the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and nongovernmental organizations have difficulty operating on any meaningful scale, it is often left to soldiers to fill the void. In this environment, cash is a weapon not of choice but of necessity. As General David Petraeus has stated, “Money is ammunition, and if you have it, you don’t need ammunition.”

Standard-bearers of martial virtue cringe at the thought of military commanders paying opponents not to fight. Did David pay off Goliath?

To its credit, the United States has proven increasingly imaginative in supplying financial ammo. For example, Congress authorized the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), through which the military pays for projects such as bridges, wells, and schools. CERP serves the dual purposes of productively employing potential enemy foot soldiers while improving daily life for the population at the center of any counterinsurgency strategy. The $30 million or so paid every month to the Sons of Iraq militias for security contracts was certainly a shot of caffeine for the anti-insurgent “Sunni Awakening,” and is an approach General Petraeus appears ready to take up in Afghanistan. But these are relatively recent developments in the American way of war and remain alien to many leaders whose concept of military operations was forged during the first Gulf War. Too few appear to embrace, let alone comprehend, the strategic opportunities cash affords.


When searching for options in this current conflict and any future war, planners should make employing money as a weapon a centerpiece of strategic thought. Cash won’t, at least directly, indiscriminately kill civilians and other noncombatants like a wayward bullet or bomb. Moreover, it may be both cheaper and more effective than traditional ways of attaining security objectives. Consider: the initial cost estimate of the decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was upwards of $30 billion. That’s $1 million per pair of boots per year. Is a single million-dollar soldier more effective in achieving U.S. objectives in Afghanistan than an entire Shinwari tribe of four hundred thousand? Would the price of that pair of boots be better spent “bribing” local Taliban fighters, buying time and space for existing NATO and Afghan forces to improve security and governance in Afghanistan?

In war, efficacy must and will overcome tradition . . . at least for the winner.

Cultural views toward cash payments are far from monolithic, so military commanders have a great deal of latitude within which to operate. For example, the subtle practice of financial incentive known as baksheesh is common in North Africa and southwestern Asia. Some Westerners find it unseemly and extortionate. But it is accepted and expected in those regions, and for some people is their sole source of income—one man’s bribe, another’s livelihood. The commonplace business practice of paying for access in the Third World would be grounds for criminal prosecution in developed Western societies, yet the 1977 U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act still permits so-called “facilitating payments.” This uneven attitude toward payoffs calls for a better-informed understanding of other cultures and supports the case for a more robust and sophisticated application of cash on the battlefield.

It is acceptable to use money to buy weapons and ammunition. It is acceptable to use money to build bridges and schools. It is acceptable to use money to pay for local contractors to provide support services. It is acceptable to use money to ferret out information to kill a particular bad guy. And it should be acceptable—indeed, expected—to use money to co-opt the enemy or attain other outcomes as strategic leaders and commanders closest to the fight deem fit.

There are obvious complications and potential pitfalls. At its very core, cash has a disturbing capacity to corrupt and payment-based loyalty is by nature unpredictable. There are also practical limitations—in T. E. Lawrence’s day, the Turks offered huge bribes to the Arabs but obtained no active service in return. So, effectively wielding a monetary weapon demands a robust auditing capability and long-term investment in intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to understand—as best one may—the foreign terrain. But that’s true whether or not governments fully employ cash as a weapon. Second- or third-order consequences are unknown—one could envision U.S. forces paying to keep a district quiet, not knowing that the money was being used to pay laborers to toil in poppy fields that produced the heroin that poisoned U.S. citizens. But it also would be naive to think that current “safe” expenditures for projects or logistical contracts are any different. When contemplating the use of cash, leaders must think like venture capitalists: expect small failures in pursuit of the big breakthrough.

It took more than eight years to come to grips with the value of financially co-opting the Taliban. This lost opportunity suggests several things. First, failed strategy is the mother of compromise. Cheap success being elusive, political leaders were driven to seek deals in January 2010 simply unimaginable in October 2001. Second, narrow strategic thinking continues to plague civil-military operations. It was not wisdom but the prospect of defeat that obliged the international community to shift course and support Karzai’s new “de-Talibanization” program; this failure and the poorly conceived Iraq post-invasion plan were the critical strategic miscalculations of the broader post-9/11 war. What would Afghanistan look like today had we forcefully pursued a sophisticated strategy to co-opt the Taliban from the first?

This fight has once again proven the importance of a physical military presence, particularly when facing an ideological foe and operating in societies that value martial virtue—the United States simply must have skin in this game. But the time has come to leverage money commensurate with its proven power to achieve an expansive range of effects. Western societies need to come to grips with the fact that engagement in what former president George W. Bush called “civilization’s fight” against terrorism requires an expansive range of options. Lawmakers should maximize a combat commander’s funding flexibility—encouraging creativity, not hamstringing it. And military leaders must be trained to embrace the strategic value of tactically administered cash and employ it inventively to make our adversaries irrelevant.

And if the probability of victory improves by paying off certain undesirables, then by all means pay them off.