To protect its supply routes in Afghanistan, the US military is funneling millions of dollars into the hands of a small number of powerful Afghan warlords who run a massive protection racket and may be paying off the Taliban, according to a Congressional report released on June 22.
The scathing report, titled "Warlord, Inc.," was the result of a six-month Congressional investigation prompted by a Nation cover story, "How the US Funds the Taliban" [November 30, 2009], about the largest US logistics contract in Afghanistan. The report by the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs confirms the findings of the Nation article, which was reported in conjunction with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. The story described how US taxpayer dollars for the "Host Nation Trucking (HNT)" contract were being funneled to warlords and insurgents in an elaborate system of extortion to secure safe passage for military goods. Under that $2.16 billion contract, the US Army has hired eight civilian trucking firms to transport supplies to the web of combat outposts and bases set up throughout Afghanistan.
The Army Criminal Investigative Command (CID) has opened a criminal investigation into the HNT contract. A spokesman for the Army CID said the investigation was ongoing but declined to release details.
In the contract, firms pay for their own private security, with little oversight from the US government. The subcommittee report says the resulting system promotes corruption and strengthens warlords—while the US military looks on. The contract "fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption," the report asserts, "and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents."
"When HNT contractors self-reported to the military that they were being extorted by warlords for protection payments for safe passage and that these payments were ‘funding the insurgency,’ they were largely met with indifference and inaction," the report adds. Among its most significant findings: "security for the US supply chain is principally provided by warlords"; "the highway warlords run a protection racket"; "protection payments for safe passage are a significant source of funding for the Taliban."
"It’s outrageous that this is going on," says Congressman John Tierney, chair of the subcommittee, in an interview with The Nation. "The evidence indicates a protection racket that would make Tony Soprano proud."
Subcommittee investigators obtained e-mails and documents in which US contractors repeatedly warn the military that they are paying bribes and being extorted and that US taxpayer funds might be going to the Taliban. In 2009 a contractor wrote frankly to military officers, "It is believed" that certain funds "are being paid as bribes to local Commanders, and therefore inevitably to the enemy." In another case, a contractor wrote in an internal company memo of a meeting with the military where there was discussion of "funding the insurgency" with "what is estimated at 1.6–2 Million Dollars per week." In an e-mail cited by the report, a contractor shares explicit details with the military logistics headquarters at Bagram Air Base, writing that "the current price to the Taliban is $500 per truck from Kandahar to Herat, $50 from Kabul to Ghazni." Driving home how much influence the warlords now have, the report includes a contractor’s printed list of forty-four military supply routes, each apparently controlled by one of ten warlords. The subcommittee report compares it to a "prix fixe menu" for security.
Subcommittee staff interviewed one key warlord, Commander Ruhullah, who was first identified in the Nation article, calling him "the single largest security provider for the US supply chain in Afghanistan." The report says that Ruhullah, nicknamed "The Butcher" by villagers along his route, has a private army of 600 armed guards. "Despite this critical and sensitive role," the report, underlining the chaotic nature of Afghan security, says, "nobody from the Department of Defense or the U.S. intelligence community has ever met with him (except for a brief detention by U.S. Special Forces on what he says are false drug charges)."
As The Nation had reported, Ruhullah operated with the private security company Watan Risk, which is owned by two brothers, Ahmad Rateb Popal and Rashid Popal. The brothers are cousins of President Hamid Karzai, and both have old convictions for federal heroin charges in the United States.
In a phone interview from Kabul with The Nation, Ahmad Rateb Popal—who was interviewed for the Congressional report along with his brother—questioned its findings. In previous communications with The Nation he denied making any payments to the Taliban. He also says that few trucking executives even knew about conditions on the road his firm secures, which is known as Highway 1. "Nobody has even been to Highway 1 and yet everyone is an expert," he said. "It raises a lot of questions about the depth of the report."
According to the subcommittee investigators, Commander Ruhullah denied bribing the Taliban but admitted that he paid bribes to "governors, police chiefs, and army generals." He said he guarded 3,500 trucks per month, charging up to $1,500 a truck, a fee that ultimately comes from US taxpayers.
The subcommittee report found that Defense Department oversight of the multibillion-dollar contract was "virtually nonexistent." The officer in charge of the technical contract oversight told subcommittee staff that his unit had "zero visibility" over the subcontractors who did the work of bringing supplies to various US bases and outposts. One lieutenant colonel to whom contractors had complained told the subcommittee that he couldn’t have investigated. "That was way, way, way, way above my level," he said. "My job was to get barrels of insulating foam for tents out to Dwyer so marines didn’t suffocate from heat exhaustion."
While the military unit that oversaw the contract treated the allegations with "indifference," according to the subcommittee, the Army launched a criminal investigation. The subcommittee released a PowerPoint from the CIC-Afghanistan titled "Host Nation Trucking. Payments to Insurgents." Most of the slides have been redacted. In one e-mail cited by the subcommittee, dated in November 2009, a military commander says, "We had the FBI, CIA, CID and three or four other acronym agencies in the office to work this topic."