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Is the US military funding both sides of the Afghan war?

Pay-offs from lucrative contracts with the U.S. military may be giving the Taliban more money than they are getting from drugs, according to sources.

KABUL, Afghanistan — It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

At a staff meeting in 2006, Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, who was then Commander, Combined Forces Afghanistan, took a sip of imported water, looked at the bottle, and said, “There must be a way of producing bottled water in Afghanistan.”

Thus was born the concept of Afghan First, a policy of preferential treatment for local companies that has now placed up to 80 percent of military procurement in the hands of Afghan vendors. Everything from fuel delivery for the Afghan army to the production of winter socks for the Afghan police is now given to a variety of local contractors, who are pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the U.S. military, under the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, CSTC-A for short.

“We are building this country,” said Sgt. Edward Gyokeres, chief of the Public Affairs Office at CSTC-A.

But, paradoxically, they may also be building the insurgency: according to those inside the system, a significant portion of that Defense Department funding ends up in the hands of the very enemy the United States is battling in Afghanistan — the Taliban. In a series of interview with contractors, military personnel and others who work inside the system, GlobalPost found almost no one who expressed surprise at the phenomenon.

“U.S. military procurement funds going to the Taliban — duh,” is how one military official put it, speaking privately.

Procurement officers working for two different companies with large CSTC-A contracts shared their stories; three military officers commented on the procurement process. The head of the non-governmental organization that matches contractors to funders also weighed in, as did numerous ordinary Afghans and foreigners more tangentially associated with the process.

All agreed: payoffs do occur, are almost impossible to track, and will be extremely difficult to stop. As with U.S. assistance funds, a percentage of which find their way to Taliban coffers, military procurement money is a major source of financing for the resurgent Taliban.

“ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) is aware of allegations that procurement funds may find their way into the hands of insurgent groups, but we do not directly support or condone this activity, if it is occurring,” said Col. Wayne Shanks, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A). “While rigorous contract award and oversight processes exist, the relationships between contractors and their subcontractors, as well as between subcontractors and others in their operational communities, are not entirely transparent.”

“Not entirely transparent” may be a bit of an understatement, according to one contractor who worked for an Afghan firm with a wide range of CSTC-A contracts.

“Everything was done in cash,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is no way of tracking where the money is going. There are no controls on payments. The military does not follow up or check on [Afghan] companies the way they can U.S. vendors.”

This is the rule, rather than the exception, where Afghan companies are concerned, say those closest to the process, with the result that money can be easily diverted.