Afghan officials allege that U.S. contractors hired to transport equipment failed to turn in documentation for billions of dollars in equipment shipped into the country since the 2010 troop “surge.” This month, Karzai’s cabinet came up with the $70 million fine, citing at least 70,000 cases in which the United States failed to process the necessary customs paperwork.
“How do we collect the fines for these violations?” Najibullah Wardak, the director general of the Afghan Customs Department, said in an interview Wednesday. “The only way is to stop all trucks from crossing the border. What else can we do?”
Wardak said the Afghan government has long suspected that vast amounts of gear shipped in U.S. military containers find their way to the black market. “We worry that we are losing a lot of revenue,” he said.
U.S. commanders see Pakistani land routes as the best and most cost-effective channel to ship materiel out of the landlocked war zone. Bilateral tensions have prompted the Pakistani government to shut down the border in the past, but the Pakistanis have been largely cooperative as the U.S. drawdown has accelerated, American officials have said.
Early this year, the U.S. military was flying out about 70 percent of its gear as it tentatively explored the ease of shipping cargo out by land. Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein, the architect of the withdrawal effort, had expressed cautious optimism about getting equipment out through Pakistan, even as he acknowledged “corruption, taxes, tariffs, all kinds of delays.”
“The tide has changed, and now we’re flying out 30 percent,” he said in an interview in Kabul last month. “Obviously, there’s a tremendous cost saving there.”
In recent weeks, however, the tide has shifted yet again. A Pentagon spokesman said that during the most recent 30-day period, only 36 percent of equipment was leaving by land.
The Pentagon estimates that the Afghan drawdown will cost $5 billion to $7 billion, depending on what percentage of the equipment slated for shipment can leave by land.
In recent months, as U.S. military cargo began to flow at an unprecedented rate down the roads that lead to Pakistan, Afghan officials decided to take a tough stance, imposing the $1,000-per-container fine. The United States did not pay it, Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said.
“The goods they bring in and take out were stopped temporarily because the deadline that was given to them expired on July 11,” he said in an e-mail.
The borders remained closed for six days. Zakhilwal extended the transit exemption Wednesday for one month but denied a U.S. request for a three-month exemption, Afghan officials said.
Officials at the Pentagon did not answer detailed questions about the tax dispute. In a statement, Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a spokesman, said U.S. officials “are confident that the situation will be resolved shortly.” He would not say how.
“We are experiencing challenges with our equipment retrograde at the southern Afghan border crossing points,” the statement said. “These issues are recurring, and typically center around the interpretation of Afghan customs processes.”
The Afghan customs chief conveyed less optimism that a resolution is imminent.
“The U.S. is still not taking it seriously,” Wardak said. “It’s a compliance issue, and they’re not complying with our laws.”
Sieff reported from Kabul. Mohammad Sharif in Kabul contributed to this report.