I missed Aram Rostom's expose of what is in effect and in part a giant Pentagon-to-Taliban payola scheme when it came out earlier this month in the Nation (not ordinarily high on my reading list). Now circulating in various publications on the Left -- but sent my way by John Bernard (no Lefty, he) -- this story of the systemic US-Afghan corruption that undergirds our continued presence in Afghanistan must not be dismissed as political fodder for just one side of the spectrum. This is a story of central importance to the American people, and deserves Left, Right and middle of the road attention.
Roston's digging attempts to lay bare the interlocking webs of corruption and pay-offs in which the US has enmeshed itself in an effort to supply US outposts in hostile territory -- i.e., all of Afghanistan. Our military people depend on those supply convoys for everything. But what kind of commanders put men and materiel in jeopardy in such hostile territory in the first place?
And guess who's being played for the sucker in the end?
Is it Ahmad Rateb Popal, the former muhajideen, pre-US-invasion Taliban interpreter, US-convicted heroin trafficker and cousin to Hamid Karzai, who is getting rich from running, along with brother Rashid (who pled guilty to heroin trafficking in a separate US case), the Watan Group in Afghanistan, a consortium Roston decribes as: "engaged in telecommunications, logistics and, most important, security"?
Or Hamed Wardak, the young American son of Afghanistan's current defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who heads a company called NCL Holdings, whose Host Nation Trucking company recently won a $360 million trucking contract from the US as a part of a whopping $2.2 billion but short-term two-year budget the US has set to hire Afghan trucks and truckers?
NCL, incidentally, has on its advisory board Milton Bearden, who, as Roston notes, is a well-known former CIA officer with great experience in the region. (I heard Bearden speak on Afghanistan earlier this year, although he didn't mention anything about business interests in the country.)
No, the Suckers here R Us -- good, old American taxpayers, who are largely clueless as to how things apparently work in Afghanistan. Roston explains:
The real secret to trucking in Afghanistan is ensuring security on the perilous roads, controlled by warlords, tribal militias, insurgents and Taliban commanders. The American executive I talked to was fairly specific about it: "The Army is basically paying the Taliban not to shoot at them. It is Department of Defense money." That is something everyone seems to agree on.
Mike Hanna is the project manager for a trucking company called Afghan American Army Services. The company, which still operates in Afghanistan, had been trucking for the United States for years but lost out in the Host Nation Trucking contract that NCL won. Hanna explained the security realities quite simply: "You are paying the people in the local areas--some are warlords, some are politicians in the police force--to move your trucks through."
Hanna explained that the prices charged are different, depending on the route: "We're basically being extorted. Where you don't pay, you're going to get attacked. We just have our field guys go down there, and they pay off who they need to." Sometimes, he says, the extortion fee is high, and sometimes it is low. "Moving ten trucks, it is probably $800 per truck to move through an area. It's based on the number of trucks and what you're carrying. If you have fuel trucks, they are going to charge you more. If you have dry trucks, they're not going to charge you as much. If you are carrying MRAPs or Humvees, they are going to charge you more."
Hanna says it is just a necessary evil. "If you tell me not to pay these insurgents in this area, the chances of my trucks getting attacked increase exponentially."
Of course, it gets worse.
One of the big problems for the companies that ship American military supplies across the country is that they are banned from arming themselves with any weapon heavier than a rifle. That makes them ineffective for battling Taliban attacks on a convoy. "They are shooting the drivers from 3,000 feet away with PKMs," a trucking company executive in Kabul told me. "They are using RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] that will blow up an up-armed vehicle. So the security companies are tied up. Because of the rules, security companies can only carry AK-47s, and that's just a joke. I carry an AK--and that's just to shoot myself if I have to!"
The rules are there for a good reason: to guard against devastating collateral damage by private security forces.
That's not a good reason. It's an insane reason. But I digress:
Still, as Hanna of Afghan American Army Services points out, "An AK-47 versus a rocket-propelled grenade--you are going to lose!" ...
For the most part, the security firms do as they must to survive. A veteran American manager in Afghanistan who has worked there as both a soldier and a private security contractor in the field told me, "What we are doing is paying warlords associated with the Taliban, because none of our security elements is able to deal with the threat." He's an Army veteran with years of Special Forces experience, and he's not happy about what's being done. He says that at a minimum American military forces should try to learn more about who is getting paid off.
"Most escorting is done by the Taliban," an Afghan private security official told me. He's a Pashto and former mujahedeen commander who has his finger on the pulse of the military situation and the security industry. And he works with one of the trucking companies carrying US supplies. "Now the government is so weak," he added, "everyone is paying the Taliban."
Including you and me. Even if you don't do the math, paying the Taliban not to shoot at supply convoys would only seem to stretch the duration of our occupation, thus necessitating more supply convoys ... Vicious circle, anyone?
Roston picks up again with the case of
Watan Risk, the firm run by Ahmad Rateb Popal and Rashid Popal, the Karzai family relatives and former drug dealers. Watan is known to control one key stretch of road that all the truckers use: the strategic route to Kandahar called Highway 1. Think of it as the road to the war--to the south and to the west. If the Army wants to get supplies down to Helmand, for example, the trucks must make their way through Kandahar.
Watan Risk, according to seven different security and trucking company officials, is the sole provider of security along this route. The reason is simple: Watan is allied with the local warlord who controls the road. Watan's company website is quite impressive, and claims its personnel "are diligently screened to weed out all ex-militia members, supporters of the Taliban, or individuals with loyalty to warlords, drug barons, or any other group opposed to international support of the democratic process." Whatever screening methods it uses, Watan's secret weapon to protect American supplies heading through Kandahar is a man named Commander Ruhullah ... the surviving road warrior for that stretch of highway. According to witnesses, he works like this: he waits until there are hundreds of trucks ready to convoy south down the highway. Then he gets his men together, setting them up in 4x4s and pickups. Witnesses say he does not limit his arsenal to AK-47s but uses any weapons he can get. His chief weapon is his reputation. And for that, Watan is paid royally, collecting a fee for each truck that passes through his corridor. The American trucking official told me that Ruhullah "charges $1,500 per truck to go to Kandahar. Just 300 kilometers."
It's hard to pinpoint what this is, exactly--security, extortion or a form of "insurance." Then there is the question, Does Ruhullah have ties to the Taliban? That's impossible to know. As an American private security veteran familiar with the route said, "He works both sides... whatever is most profitable. He's the main commander. He's got to be involved with the Taliban. How much, no one knows."
Even NCL, the company owned by Hamed Wardak, pays. Two sources with direct knowledge tell me that NCL sends its portion of US logistics goods in Watan's and Ruhullah's convoys. Sources say NCL is billed $500,000 per month for Watan's services. To underline the point: NCL, operating on a $360 million contract from the US military, and owned by the Afghan defense minister's son, is paying millions per year from those funds to a company owned by President Karzai's cousins, for protection.
Isn't there something, anything, wrong with this picture????
Hamed Wardak wouldn't return my [Roston's] phone calls. Milt Bearden, the former CIA officer affiliated with the company, wouldn't speak with me either. There's nothing wrong with Bearden engaging in business in Afghanistan, but disclosure of his business interests might have been expected when testifying on US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After all, NCL stands to make or lose hundreds of millions based on the whims of US policy-makers.
Rest assured that Iraq wasn't exactly about oil (just look at all those Iraqi oil contracts going to just everyone the US). But can it be said that Afghanistran isn't about ... trucking?
I'm kidding, mostly. The trucking issue is just one more manifestation of the delusional basis of the US hearts and minds policy in Afghanistan. It doesn't make us safer, but it surely makes us dumber. And it leaves our armed forces over there in a terrible situation.