by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 12, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There's a reason why Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires. Afghans are not just tenacious fighters, they are equally tenacious when it comes to corruption and playing every possible angle for fun and profit.
One vignette, taken from the Nov. 30 issue of The Nation, perfectly illustrates why it will be so difficult for the Obama Administration to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.
Investigative reporter Aram Roston looked into the logistics of supplying U.S. forces into Afghanistan. Virtually everything is trucked from Bagram Air Force Base, about an hour north of Kabul, to military bases all over Afghanistan.
Who is doing the trucking? Private companies such as NCL Holdings, which is run by Hamed Wardak, the son of the current Afghan defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak. The younger Wardak was raised and schooled in the United States, graduated from Georgetown as a valedictorian, received a Rhodes Scholarship and interned at the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-conservative Washington think tank.
The connections he made in Washington served him well. Even though Wardak and his trucking company, Host Nation Trucking, had no apparent trucking experience, it was picked as one of the six companies to do the bulk of the supply hauling in Afghanistan. A total of $2.2 billion, or about 10 percent of the entire Afghan gross domestic product, was paid to the six firms this year.
But these trucks have to travel every day through territory controlled by warlords, tribal militias, insurgents and Taliban commanders. How do they get through? By paying the Taliban not to shoot at them.
That's right. We are paying the Taliban, the enemy whom U.S. soldiers are supposed to be fighting, not to attack the convoys that are bringing food and ammo to the people who are fighting them.
It's as if Milo Minderbinder, the crafty and amoral wheeler-dealer in Joseph Heller's World War II novel "Catch-22," is alive and well and running the Army Quartermaster Corps in Afghanistan.
Roston reported that U.S. military officials estimate at least 10 percent of all logistics contracts - hundreds of millions of dollars - consist of payments to insurgents. Next to selling opium, it's the Taliban's biggest source of income.
"We're basically getting extorted," Mike Hanna, a trucking company project manager, told Roston. "Where you don't pay, you're going to get attacked. We just have our field guys go down there, and they pay off who they need to."
The price varies depending on the number of trucks and the cargo, but Hanna said it usually costs about $800 a truck to guarantee safe passage for a 10-truck convoy. The payoffs are needed because there is no other way to get supplies to the outposts and no other way to protect the trucks from attack. In many cases, it's the Taliban providing the security. And those insurgents have close ties with other well-connected people in the Afghan government.
Take Watan Risk Management, a private military contractor run by former drug dealers Rashid and Ahmad Rateb Popal, cousins of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The company controls security for the one key route all the truckers use - the road to Kandahar known as Highway 1. How do they do it? By being allied with a man named Commander Ruhullah, the local warlord who controls the road and charges a toll of $1,500 a truck to keep it safe from ambush.
Let us review. We have cousins of the Afghan president providing security for convoys by working with a warlord whose loyalty apparently belongs to whichever side pays him more. You have the son of the Afghan defense minister running a trucking company that is paying the Taliban not to shoot at their trucks. And you have the U.S. military command in Afghanistan basically shrugging its shoulders.
"The American soldier in me is repulsed by it," Col. David Haight, commander of the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, told Roston. "But I know that it is what it is: essentially paying the enemy, saying 'Hey, don't hassle me.' I don't like it, but it is what it is."
Looking at this, we can see that the problem isn't the casual acceptance of Afghan corruption by U.S. military leaders.
"Many officials acknowledge what is going while also expressing a deep disquiet about the situation," concludes Roston. "The trouble is that - as with so much in Afghanistan - the United States doesn't seem to know how to fix it."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.