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"It's a perfect war. Everybody makes money."

How US military funds are ending up in the hands of the Taliban.

KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — It’s payday in the villages of Zanda Khel and Shobo Khel, so the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) remains vigilant. The ADT is paying a group of farmers for their work on a series of small rock dams, designed to reduce soil erosion and improve irrigation. But this area is a Taliban stronghold and there is a lot of cash involved — tens of thousands of dollars.

So the soldiers carefully watch the milling Pashtun tribesmen waiting to be paid. Turret gunners in the armored MRAPs scan the mountains for snipers. There are few safe places here in Khost Province, an insurgency wracked region along the Pakistan border. And with a Taliban nest three kilometers away, Zanda Khel and Shobo Khel are certainly not among them.

The development project here is considered a good gig for the Afghans — the pay of $6 a day is triple the going rate for farm labor. Part of the U.S. cash-for-work strategy is to hire military-age Afghan males during the fighting season, to put shovels in their hands instead of Kalashnikovs. Accordingly, the pay also beats the Taliban day-rate for guerrilla work.

The $200,000 dam project is funded through a controversial aid program known by its military acronym, CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program). The dam project represents an enormous boon for these impoverished villages, where annual incomes are about $400 a year.

The legendary fat-tailed sheep.
(Douglas Wissing/GlobalPost)

But the project has been plagued with problems. Though the Afghan contractor came with U.S. military references from other work, he has done a poor job with the construction. Worse, he tried to enter the ADT post at Forward Operating Base Salerno with a false ID and failed his biometric BAT-HIIDE identification scan. (BAT, Biometric Automated Toolkit, and HIIDE, Handheld Interagency Detection Equipment, allow soldiers use a camera, fingerprint scanner, an iris reader and portable computer to identify known insurgents.) The soldiers are beginning to wonder about the contractor. Is he Taliban? Is he funneling money to the insurgency? They are fair questions.

In spite of the U.S. intervention in this Taliban-ridden region, the dam project has been counterintuitively free of attack, leaving soldiers here suspicious. ADT commander Col. Brian Copes says: “The Taliban might have taken 30 or 40 percent right off the top, and now he’s struggling to perform, because he’s got less than 100 percent of budget because the Taliban took their cut right off the top.”

Hoping to prevent the contractor from absconding with the funds or paying off the insurgents, the ADT has hauled big green garbage bags filled with millions of afghanis, the Afghan currency, into the mountains to pay the villagers directly. After a tense six hours with restive tribesmen, the team is almost done.

The Afghan contractor leaves, charging down the dirt road out of Zanda Khel, past the nearby Taliban nest. About 10 minutes later, the soldiers are packing up when a loud boom echoes through the mountains. They turn to see a cloud of smoke rising from the road, where an unfortunate Afghan motorcyclist has inadvertently triggered a buried bomb, which the ADT is certain was intended for them.