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Are Pentagon contracts funding the Taliban?

A US military aid program is being used by the Taliban as an extortion racket.

Afghan workers wait to unload wheat donation bags from the World Food Program in Kabul, April 15, 2008. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

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

At a staff meeting in 2006, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who was then commander of Combined Forces Afghanistan, took a sip of bottled water.  

Then he looked at the label of one of the Western companies that were being paid millions of dollars a year to ship bottled water by the container load into Afghanistan.  

And Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 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 Afghan-owned companies that steers military aid into the hands of Afghan vendors.  

All local procurement from fuel delivery for the Afghan army to the production of winter socks for the Afghan police — everything short of weapons and ammunition — now comes from a variety of local contractors, who are being paid about $800 million per year from the U.S. military. The largesse comes out of the total $1.1 billion budget for local purchases that falls under the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, CSTC-A for short. It is the lead U.S. agency responsible for developing the Afghan army and police.

“We are building this country,” said Sgt. Edward Gyokeres, chief of the public affairs office at CSTC-A, explaining that the program is intended to use the American and coalition aid money in a way that helps construct a national economy in Afghanistan.

But, paradoxically, this well-intentioned policy may also benefit the insurgency, according to those inside the system, who contend that a significant portion of that money going to Afghan vendors trickles down into the hands of the very enemy the U.S. is battling in Afghanistan — the Taliban.

Precise numbers are impossible to obtain in the lawless fringes of rural Afghanistan where there is very little accounting for this money, but those knowledgeable about the process estimate that at least 10 percent, or about $80 million, has in the last year gone to the diverse groupings of Afghan insurgents whom the U.S. military has come to call the Taliban.

Some contractors say as much as 20 percent of the contracts go to paying off the insurgency, which would put the number closer to $160 million a year.

U.S. and Afghan officials tracking where the Taliban gets its funding estimate that the Taliban’s annual take of the poppy crop is about $100 million. Over the last month, GlobalPost conducted a series of interviews with contractors, military personnel and others who work inside the system and confirmed that a flow of money goes from these local Afghan contractors to the Taliban for payoffs and protection in the widening areas of the country that are Taliban controlled.

In fact, GlobalPost found almost no one inside the military procurement and aid community who expressed surprise at the phenomenon, but very few who were willing to discuss the process on the record out of fear of losing their lucrative contracts, their jobs, or their lives.

“There is no line item for bribes,” said CSTC-A’s Sgt. Gyokeres. “That’s not to say it doesn’t happen.”