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Afghan corruption: How to follow the money?

Speaking to U.S. Troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said the United States will be less secure if the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan. (March 28)

Congressional investigators who have opened a probe into the Defense Department's $2.16 billion Host Nation Trucking (HNT) contract described what one called "willful blindness" on the part of a U.S. military that "likes having its trucks showing up and doesn't want to get into the details of how they got there."

Price of doing business?

Virtually everything used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from food, water and fuel to arms and ammunition, is imported, most of it overland, through Pakistan or Central Asia.

U.S. military officials say they are well aware that Afghan officials who control the border towns are involved in smuggling and skimming contract money and goods. But the Afghans also facilitate the flow of supplies and provide intelligence. Their criminal activities, although not condoned, are viewed largely as the price of doing business.

Once U.S. supplies enter Afghanistan, most are taken to central distribution points, such as U.S. headquarters at Bagram, north of Kabul, and transferred to a separate fleet of vehicles for distribution to hundreds of military facilities and forward operating bases around the country.

Up to 90 percent of the internal transport is handled by eight firms with a piece of the HNT contract; they include Wardak's NCL Holdings, two other Afghan companies, three based in the Persian Gulf region and two with U.S. principals. Most of them serve largely as facilitators, organizing the local subcontractors who provide vehicles and security.

Gates has said he wants to reduce the number of contractors in Afghanistan, but Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander there, has praised the logistics deals because of their Afghan participation. "They are supporting operations. It's helping the [Afghan] economy," he said in a speech in December. "In many cases, it's developing different processes that'll help them in the future."

Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the national security subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened an investigation that month into what he said were "serious allegations . . . that private security providers for U.S. transportation contractors in Afghanistan are regularly paying local warlords and the Taliban for security."

Tierney said many of the allegations were first raised in a November report by the Nation magazine. It described an entrenched system of protection payoffs and the close connections most Afghan contractors have to senior government officials.

In letters to Gates and each of the eight HNT firms, Tierney asked that all documents related to the transport operations and security subcontractors be provided to the subcommittee by mid-January.

"It's a long-standing business practice within Afghanistan to use your control of the security environment in order to extort payment from those who want to operate within your space, whether it's construction of a cellphone tower, a dam, or running trucks," said the House investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the examination is ongoing.

Over the past three months, the subcommittee has examined hundreds of documents and interviewed numerous Defense Department and Afghan officials, as well as Western expatriates working as program managers for the HNT firms who have become their primary sources.

"We have found nothing that would change that original core narrative" of widespread protection payments, the investigator said.

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