Fueling the Afghan War
It was all cozy until violence hit the streets of Bishkek in 2005, foreshadowing what was to come five years later. The "Tulip Revolution" forced Akayev to flee and abdicate, and then the secrets of the Akayev regime began to tumble out, in scandal after scandal. The new government, headed by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, even asked the US government for help investigating the former regime. The FBI's Eurasian Unit churned out an extraordinary report that laid bare a "vast amount of potential criminal activities associated with the Akaev Organization." The president and his family were accused of "siphoning off at least $1 billion from the Kyrgyz state budget." It was as if the Kyrgyz government had been some kind of criminal enterprise within which the United States ran a military base.
After the revolt, people thought things might be different. The new government seemed to bring a fresh sense of integrity for a short while, before it began to stack its own skeletons in the closet. Despite his claims to be a reformer, Bakiyev appeared to go about replicating the patterns of his predecessor in a deliberate manner. "He really didn't think twice. They inherited this," says one consultant who dealt with Bakiyev shortly after the revolution. "We really in great detail uncovered the scheme. And I think the moment they figured out how it worked, they went and did it."
Peter Zalmayev of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative puts it this way: "Bakiyev came in under the premise he would clean [the government] up and make it more transparent. But he replaced the structure they had with Akayev and his son with his own family." Word quickly spread that Bakiyev's youngest son, Maksim, was in business too. The insiders said he was taking over "Manas International"--through frontmen.
Meanwhile, Bakiyev's associates were making powerful US connections. For example, one of his allies set up a bank called AsiaUniversalBank (AUB) in Bishkek. On its board were two august former US senators: former US Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, currently associated with the lobbying firm Alston & Bird, and J. Bennett Johnston, the longtime Louisiana senator, who has his own firm. Dole was paid several hundred thousand dollars for his role, which included one trip to Bishkek and a few board meetings in Washington.
Meanwhile, what mattered to the United States was the base at Manas. There, the airfield was still lined with squadrons of KC-135 Stratotankers, which needed constant filling for their missions over the skies of Afghanistan.
Red Star kept up its work, supplying fuel.
But Red Star was also busy elsewhere at the same time. Chuck Squires and Red Star were now focused not just on Kyrgyzstan but directly on Afghanistan. To do business with the US military in Afghanistan usually means operating at Bagram Air Base, the sprawling compound--a virtual military city--about an hour north of Kabul.
Col. Jonathan Ives was then the base commander at Bagram. Red Star, he says, was synonymous with aviation fuel, trucking it down from Uzbekistan along an old and treacherous route through the mountains from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, passing at one point through the Salang Pass, a 1.5-mile tunnel through a mountain. Ives says Red Star trucked in more than 250,000 gallons of the precious stuff each day--a staggering amount. Each tanker truck can carry a maximum of 9,000 gallons, so Red Star would have had convoys of about thirty tractor-trailers per day.
In October 2007 Red Star scored a remarkable coup. Squires signed a deal with Ives that allowed Red Star to build and own a pipeline that ran from the base for all that fuel. Ives says that Red Star had purchased land near Bagram Air Base. "It was farmland, so they purchased the land and the rights." In the memorandum of agreement between Red Star and the military, obtained by The Nation, Red Star promises it "will install, at no cost to the United States Government (USG), a petroleum pipeline for transfer of TS-1 jet fuel." Significantly, the agreement says, "Red Star will retain ownership of the pipeline."
It is intriguing that the firm signed such a document rather than an ordinary contract. "It is very unusual--very unusual," said professor Charles Tiefer, an expert on contract law at the University of Baltimore School of Law who sits on the US government's eight-member Commission on Wartime Contracting. I asked him who would regulate such an agreement. "Nobody," he answered. "There is no regulation of it because it's not supposed to happen, because it is trying to create a loophole where there is none in the Competition in Contracting Act."