US military faulted over truck security in Afghanistan

Supply firms pay warlords for protection; Corrupt system aiding Taliban

A NATO vehicle burned following a suicide attack recently in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Trucking companies that supply US forces say they must pay warlords and Afghan officials for protection so their convoys can pass unhindered. A NATO vehicle burned following a suicide attack recently in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Trucking companies that supply US forces say they must pay warlords and Afghan officials for protection so their convoys can pass unhindered. (Rahmat Gul/ Associated Press)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / June 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The system set up by the US military to supply its troops in Afghanistan fuels corruption and finances warlords and the Taliban, according to a report released yesterday by an oversight committee headed by US Representative John F. Tierney of Salem.

The 79-page report, titled “Warlord Inc,’’ faults the US military for requiring that trucking companies that deliver goods to US military bases in Afghanistan be responsible for their own security.

It details how eight trucking companies that share a $2.1 billion contract are forced to pay warlords and Afghan officials to pass unhindered with their convoys.

In some cases, the companies pay as much as $150,000 a month for protection and more than $1,500 per truck, according to internal memos and other documents reproduced in the report. The report accuses the military of turning a blind eye to the problem.

“Originally, we were surprised, but as our investigation went on, you go beyond the surprise to the outrage that something has to be done about this,’’ Tierney, chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

The report comes after a six-month investigation into Host Nation Trucking, the major contract under which 70 percent of all goods to US military bases in the country are supplied. Tierney and his aides interviewed dozens of contractors, military officers, Afghan leaders, and warlords, including two brothers and two cousins of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. Tierney, a Democrat, has asked military officials to testify at a hearing on the issue today.

Army criminal investigators are also examining allegations that Afghan security firms have been extorting as much as $4 million a week from US military trucking contractors, according to the Associated Press. A call and e-mail to a Pentagon spokeswoman were not returned yesterday.

The report paints a grim picture of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, a landlocked country with few reliable routes for delivering supplies. Improvised bombs have roughly tripled between 2007 and last year, from 2,677 to 8,159, according to one tally cited in the report.

Perhaps more disturbing, it suggests that even the absence of attacks could be bad news for the United States, because temporary peace is bought as a result of payments to warlords that often funnel money to the Taliban.

The report provides new details and documents to support allegations that have been simmering in the press. For instance, the report provides insights about why few companies bid on a trucking supply contract in Helmand Province.

“I believe that most involved in this contract knew that cash money is often the most effective security, but I do not think it was anticipated how high the market would drive these prices and that cash security and special security forces would so often be the only option,’’ one contractor, whose name and company were redacted, wrote in a response to the military.

Another contractor wrote: “It is believed that a part of these charges are being paid as bribes to local commanders, and therefore inevitably to the enemy.’’

The payments are sometimes given in the form of formal subcontracts to Afghan security companies headed by warlords or well-connected personalities, the report said. Despite frequent complaints by contractors, the US military has shown little interest in the problem until now.

A Sept 10, 2009, internal company memo from an undisclosed contractor said that a US military commander “stated he did not care what it took or how much it cost to get the loads through as that was our problem. Basically, without saying it, if we support the enemy that is ok.’’

A senior Defense Department official in Afghanistan told Tierney’s staff that protection payments had been discussed, but that no action has been taken.

“There is no change on the horizon,’’ the official said, according to the report. “We keep punting the issue down the road. It would require a major shock to the system to change the [Host Nation Trucking] business model.’’

This month, top Pentagon officials informed members of Congress that they are creating a task force to examine the impact of US contracting on corruption.

But as faulty as the current situation is now, specialists said alternatives also carried risks.

“While is it important that we continue to do all we can to combat illicit financial flows, setting up an alternative to Afghan private security contracts — such as having US troops escort the goods — would be costly and entail additional dangers,’’ said Jeremy Pam, guest scholar at US Institute of Peace.

Farah Stockman can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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