A Congressional subcommittee has reached the conclusion that the Pentagon is knowingly providing major support for the Taliban, ignoring hundreds of complaints from Afghan trucking contractors who are being forced to pay massive “protection payments” to insurgents in order to avoid attacks on convoys carrying US military supplies to American bases. The Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. John Tierney, interviewed dozens of witnesses in Dubai, including contracting officers of the 484th Joint Movement Control Battalion and Afghan truck contractors who “self-reported.” The truck contractors who self-reported had already complained to the US military about the protection payments to insurgents. The committee gathered over 25,000 pages of documents. The report is entitled “Warlord, Inc.”
The amount estimated as income to the Taliban using figures given in the report is as much as $400 million per year. For comparison purposes, the Taliban’s opium profits are estimated at $300 million per year. Corruption which includes weapons and cash reaching the enemy has been a feature of wars past, notably Vietnam; rarely, however, has the problem reached the level of a primary, and, perhaps, principle, source of funding, exposed in its minutest details by sworn testimony and thousands of pages of documentation.
Knowledge of the practice has run all the way up the chain of command for some time, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling Congress in testimony last June: “You offload a ship in Karachi [Pakistan] and by the time whatever it is – you know, muffins for our soldiers’ breakfasts or anti-IED equipment – gets to where we’re headed, it goes through a lot of hands. And one of the major sources of funding for the Taliban is the protection money.”
The payments are in essence unavoidable as a result of the remote and hostile nature of the Afghan countryside. An American officer says in the Tierney report:
[T]he heart of the matter is that insurgents are getting paid for safe passage because there are few other ways to bring goods to the combat outposts and forward operating bases where soldiers need them. By definition, many outposts are situated in hostile terrain, in the southern parts of Afghanistan. The [Afghan security companies run by warlords] don’t really protect convoys of American military goods here, because they simply can’t; they need the Taliban’s cooperation.
The ability to pay fighters through illegal profits and other sources is a critical part of the Taliban’s strength, as its popularity remains low after previous years of repressive rule. But through opium profits and other sources, such as the protection payments, it can easily afford to pay fighters a wage, excellent for Afghanistan, of $10 a day. Despite spending over 30 times Afghanistan’s yearly GNP since 2001 on military operations, poverty remains wretched, and 40 percent of the labor force is unemployed, giving the Taliban a vast pool of potential recruits. Still, although the US presence has reinvigorated the Taliban’s preferred image of nationalist freedom fighters, few Afghans, even among Pashtuns (the ethnic group most associated with the Taliban) want to see them return as a government.
The report found that insurgents and their warlord allies, who run Afghan “security companies,” extort anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 USD per truck to allow to pass unhindered the two-hundred- or three-hundred-vehicle convoys which cross the country daily. The convoys transport MRAP armored vehicles, Humvees, ammunition, bottled water, fuel, Oreo cookies, video games, treadmills, frozen turkeys, air conditioners, and any number of goods which comprise the range of Department of Defense contracting in the now $100 billion per year war.
Representative Tierney told CBS News: “What shocked me is the constant call of the contractors to bring it to the attention of the Department of Defense.” The response from the US, said Tierney, was to turn a blind eye as long as the goods got to where they needed to go.
The “Warlord, Inc.” report shows that up to 20 percent of all overland transportation contracts for military supply convoys are paid to warlords and their insurgent allies. The contract examined in depth by the investigation was worth $ 2.16 billion. Tierney called what the report had found “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The business is war and the war is business and you’ve got ‘Warlord Inc.’ going on over there,” Tierney said.
The report noted that the weight and volume of freight is many orders of magnitude over what would be possible to transport any other way than truck convoy. Fuel and bottled water requirements alone are many times the weight capacity of military airlift by helicopter or cargo plane, and the number of airstrips capable of handling large aircraft is severely limited.
In its specific descriptions of the layout in Afghanistan in which every stretch of road is considered prime real estate, the report detailed an array of unsavory characters. In the north, every contractor and subcontractor assigned to take US supplies to Uruzgan exclusively uses Matiullah Khan’s security services. According to the CEO of one of the contracting companies, “Matiullah has the road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt completely under his control. No one can travel without Matiullah without facing consequences. There is no other way to get there. You have to either pay him, or fight him.”
The report warns that the de facto policy of protection payments to insurgents and their allies strengthen and arm the very elements of society most opposed to the emergence of a strong central government, and are also the elements which tend to have the most repressive attitudes towards women.
Of a Commander “Ruhullah” (likely a nom de guerre), the report says:
Commander Ruhullah [who controls the key Highway 1 between Kabul and Kandahar to the south] is just one of dozens of warlords, strongmen, and commanders who have found a niche in providing security services to the US military in Afghanistan. Some are well-known tribal leaders or former mujahedeen who have been in the business of war for the past thirty years. Others, like Commander Ruhullah, are relative newcomers whose power and influence are directly derivative of their contracting and subcontracting work for the US government. Both the old and new warlords’ interests are in fundamental conflict with a properly functioning government.
One convoy that made the mistake of not paying Commander Ruhullah, known by villagers along his stretch of highway as “the butcher,” reported hostile contact with 15-20 insurgents. According to the report:
[The convoy security commander] came to the conclusion that this ambush … was well planned by Ruhullah. … [M]inutes before the ambush the guards of [the security commander] could see that the guards of Ruhullah were busy on their phones and now know that they were talking with the insurgents.
The report even notes peculiar Afghan techniques of “fee negotiation,” such as sporadic firefights between different warlords and insurgent groups.
The war in Afghanistan remains lucrative for some. The newsletter InvestingDaily.com, which takes a dim view of the war’s ultimate prospects, nevertheless brims with enthusiasm in an April 2010 article “How to profit from the war in Afghanistan.” The editor writes:
Last week, I wrote an article on Afghanistan discussing the bleak prospects for US involvement there. The revelation over the weekend that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is sabotaging US efforts by secretly cooperating with the Afghan Taliban … only confirms my concerns.
But the article then stresses:
The Afghanistan troop surge means profits! … [T]he likelihood that the US will end up the loser in Afghanistan is a long-term worry. In the short-term, military contractors doing business in Afghanistan will make a boatload of money.
The cost of the war in Afghanistan to the US taxpayer is currently running at about $100 billion per year. The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to economist Joe Stiglitz, is not less than $50,000 per American family over the last nine years. Tea Party candidate and victor Senator-elect Rand Paul has suggested that talk about debt reduction is meaningless if one ignores the single largest discretionary spending item in the budget, the defense budget. Paul says that all items must be “on the table.”
A battle seems to be brewing between GOP Republicans who want to prevent Obama from withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan beginning in 2011, and Tea Party candidates like Paul who talk about the “military-industrial complex.” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has called those who want to pull out of Afghanistan “isolationist.”
Obama has called fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and says the US has no choice. Peace activists note, however, that similar language was used during the Vietnam War, when politicians said repeatedly that “we must fight the Communists in the jungles of Southeast Asia, or we will fight them on the shores of San Diego.” After the US was defeated in Vietnam, the threat to American shores never materialized. After the loss of 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese, the unified communist nation has since become a favorite destination for American companies such as Nike.