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GlobalPost Kabul correspondent Jean MacKenzie recently revealed that millions in U.S. aid money are flowing to the Taliban, via payoffs. That triggered a U.S. government probe. In this call, MacKenzie discusses her article, and updates Passport members on the dire situation in Afghanistan.
Taliban militants in January, 2009. (Photo by Reuters )
Editor's note: the play button will work after the audio loads. This may take a minute or two. Below is the transcript of the Correspondent Call with Afghanistan correspondent Jean MacKenzie.
Passport: Good morning and welcome. It’s September 10, 2009, I’m David Case, Editor of GlobalPost Passport in our Boston newsroom. We have a very special call for you today. I’m very pleased to have on the phone Jean MacKenzie, GlobalPost’s Kabul correspondent. Welcome, Jean.
Jean MacKenzie: Thank you, David.
Passport: We’re going to discuss recent developments in Afghanistan, and most importantly, we’re going to talk about Jean’s revelations the US taxpayer money is one of the Taliban’s richest sources of funding. In an August GlobalPost article, Jean wrote, “It is an open secret no one wants to talk about. The unwelcome truth that most prefer to hide. In Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country.” Jean wrote those words as part of a GlobalPost special report called “Life, Death and the Taliban,” which you can find on our website via an attractive promo photo on the right-hand column. Based on her report, the US State Department has launched a probe into the issue. Her article also prompted House Foreign Affairs Committee member Bill Delahunt to call for congressional hearings.
This is obviously a very important issue. For the Taliban, being able to amass treasure is the lifeblood of its insurgency. Money helps the insurgency attract fresh recruits; it helps pay for weapons that the Taliban aims at Western troops as well. So its obviously quite worrying to see that the US is inadvertently abetting it’s own enemy.
Before we jump in, let me make a few announcements. First, remember that the call is on-the-record. It’s being recorded and will be posted on GlobalPost Passport’s website. We have a number of first-time non-Passport members on the line today, so I would like to welcome them and give them some background about Passport. Passport is GlobalPost’s premium content section, which helps us pay for our 70-odd correspondents around the world and allows our members to have a closer relationship with the editorial team. In addition to having a website with exclusive content, we hold calls like this each week on topics of interest to our globally-engaged membership, often from the front lines of whatever news is breaking around the world. I would encourage you to visit globalpost.com/passport for more information on what makes Passport worth joining.
Finally, regarding the call format, I will lead a Q and A that will last about 20 minutes, after which we will open the floor to questions. You lines are now muted. I will instructions on how to un-mute them before the Q and A. Before we talk about how the Taliban gets its hands on US foreign assistance, there’s been a lot of groundbreaking news out of Afghanistan in the last couple of weeks and I want to take a few minutes to ask Jean about how these events look from her on-the-ground perspective.
First, Jean, we’ve heard a lot of reports about Hamid Karzai’s alleged ballot box-stuffing in recent Presidential elections. Can you tell us what the mood is like on the streets now?
MacKenzie: Well, there is a certain amount of tension. Happily, the past couple of days have been quiet. We were quite worried about what might happen on September 9, which is the holiday of the death, the anniversary of the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the very famous commander. I think that Afghans, at this point, are so disgusted by the whole spectacle of the elections that they’re just turning off to the entire story. I believe that the international community is following the ups and downs of this election and the investigation into it with much more interest than the average Afghan.
Passport: Another recent event: this oil tanker bombing that happened last week. It allegedly killed dozens of civilians. Is this adding fuel to the fire in Afghanistan? How are people taking this news?
MacKenzie: Well, it certainly is. It’s still very difficult to make a final determination as to how many civilians were killed. But it is ironic, very sadly ironic, that this comes just as General Stanley McChrystal’s new policy of protecting Afghans and winning hearts and minds is supposed to be going into affect. This certainly does not help and makes Afghans even more disillusioned and angry.
Passport: The oil tanker incident is causing friction between the US and German militaries. How is that evolving?
MacKenzie: Well, there certainly is a lot of friction. The US has been accusing the Germans for, or blaming the Germans, for a quite a while. They are not as involved in this war as the US would like them to be. And the Germans have resisted being pulled in voluntarily. This is being played out. We saw that a Washington Post correspondent was given extraordinary access into the investigation about this incident and many people have speculated that this was a way of bringing the Germans in because their role was exposed quite brutally.
Passport: Right. And a German commander actually called in the airstrike on these two tankers.
MacKenzie: It was the Germans who called in the airstrike, yes.
Passport: And then the big story today is about the rescue of New York Times reporter Steven Farrell and a daring commando raid that unfortunately left his translator, Sultan Munadi, dead. What are you hearing about that?
MacKenzie: Well, that’s a very, very sad story. And, again, we’re hearing conflicting versions of the commando raid. I don’t think that we have heard the last word on that yet, its not clear how Sultan Munadi died, whether he was killed by the Taliban, or by friendly fire by the British. I think that we have to look at this case as a morality tale. When we, international correspondents, when we go into war zones, we are putting ourselves at risk, but we are putting the Afghans with us at much more risk. And Sultan Munadi is being called a translator, he was actually much more than that. He was a colleague, a journalist. And he takes a much greater risk going into this kind of a situation than international correspondents do, and I think that we have got to keep this in mind. Of course, we’re all happy that Steve Farrell was freed, but I think that the headlines of Sultan Munadi’s death should be right up there with the fact that Steve Farrell is no longer in captivity.
Passport: Jean, let’s look at the bigger picture. In the west, the public is becoming disillusioned with all the bad press coming out of Afghanistan and leaders are starting to feel the pinch, it seems. NATO’s Secretary General, yesterday, felt compelled to warn that a rush to withdraw from the battlefield is not an option. You’ve been in Afghanistan for five years now. How do you see the big picture trends? Are we sliding into a quagmire, or have we just hit a rough spot? Do you see any signs there on the ground of progress?
MacKenzie: Well, I will have to say that if we’ve hit a rough spot, it’s been a rough spot of at least five years duration because the situation has become steadily worse since I’ve been here. I think that we are not looking at a rough patch or the darkness before the dawn. We are looking at a policy that has gone very badly wrong. And I think, unless we pull back, and start looking at why we’re in Afghanistan and what we’re hoping to achieve in Afghanistan, there is very little change that we’re going to be able to make much progress. Things are not getting better, they are getting much, much worse.
Passport: Ok, and before we turn to your Taliban funding piece, let’s touch upon General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy. He has instructed the troops first and foremost to protect Afghan civilians, rather than hunting and killing Taliban, which was the former strategy. It seems that this could reverse some of the ill will that the Afghans harbor towards the foreign troops, but is it a winning strategy? In Iraq, things turned around with the awakening councils, when the US started paying Sunni insurgents to cooperate, making it, basically, in their self-interest to stop the fighting. Is there anything afoot in Afghanistan that’s akin to that that would be sort of the logical solution to this situation?
MacKenzie: No there’s not, and the situations are very, very different in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In Iraq, you had a much, much less complex pattern of overlapping insurgencies. We have something in Afghanistan now that’s called the Afghan Public Protection Program, which is recruiting local men to form what they don’t want to call militias, but which are basically local militias, arming them, giving them uniforms and asking them to protect the communities. But, this is not at all akin to the Anbar Awakening or the Sons of Iraq programs that we had there. If we wanted to do in Afghanistan what we did in Iraq, we would actually have to be paying the Taliban not to fight us. And since we cannot even talk to the Taliban, since we have not been able to open up a discourse with the Taliban, I think it would be very difficult to do.
Passport: Ok. That makes a good transition to your Taliban piece. I want to read just a little bit more from your article. You write, “virtually every major project includes a cut for the insurgents. Call it protection money. Call it extortion. Or, as the Taliban themselves prefer to term it, spoils of war. The fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are, to a large extent, financing their own enemy.” Here’s a quote: “‘Everyone knows this is going on,’ said one US Embassy official, speaking privately.” So, how does this work? How does foreign assistance money get into Taliban hands?
MacKenzie: Well, it’s a fairly complex process. Large projects that come into Afghanistan are normally parceled out to a variety of subcontractors. If you want to do procurement, buying goods and services, you’re most likely going to have to do it through an Afghan company. We simply don’t have the contacts or the resources to do this kind of procurement. It’s at the Afghan to Afghan level that this is happening. If you want to get goods or provide services in parts of the country that are controlled by Taliban, and that’s over fifty percent of the country now, you are going to have to pay them off. Just in order to get a shipment of fuel in or to get a shipment of pipes is one case that I investigated, there is absolutely no way that you can operate. You can’t build a road, a school, a clinic, dig a well, do anything in Taliban-controlled areas without involving the Taliban and without paying them off. So, this is tacked on to the cost of transportation, it’s tacked on to the cost of procurement, it’s hidden in the budgets — there certainly isn’t a line-item that says, “Taliban pay-off.” But, it is there. It’s very much there and these payments are going to the Taliban.
Passport: Can you tell us about that, the shipment of pipes that was in your article? That was a very interesting example of how this works.
MacKenzie: Well, this is just one very small example, although it was several hundred thousand pipes. But, in order to have the pipes brought in from Pakistan, you had to tack the cost of Taliban pay-offs onto the cost of the pipes. So, if the pipes were going to cost you, theoretically, five cents, your recording price was going to be twenty cents. Because you’re going to have to have the cost of transportation, say five cents per pipe, five cents for the Taliban, and five cents for you. And you multiply that by two or three hundred thousand and you’re talking some real money. But, without that, those pipes are never going to reach their destination.
Passport: There was another anecdote about a bridge that the Taliban apparently didn’t want constructed.
MacKenzie: Right. Well, that is the anecdote that, I think, shows how closely the Taliban and the contractors are cooperating. There was a contractor that was building a bridge in a Taliban-controlled area and he got a phone call from the Taliban saying, “Don’t build a bridge there, we’re going to have to blow it up.” And the contractor had very good working relations with the Taliban and he said, “Please, don’t blow it up yet, we’re almost done. Let us complete the project, collect our money, and then you can blow it up and we’ll make even more money because we’ll get a contract to rebuild the bridge.” And that is what they did and everybody was happy.
Passport: That doesn’t sound like a very good formula for success in the long term.
MacKenzie: No, it certainly doesn’t.
Passport: And where does the money come from? What do we know about that? Is it mainly U.S. government funds? Or are there certain branches within the government that are more apt to be doing this?
MacKenzie: Well, there certainly is a healthy portion that is US government funds simply because the US is the biggest donor. But, I wouldn’t want to suggest that it is solely US funds by any means. This happens with British funds, this happens with German funds, this happens with Japanese funds. It’s a system not targeted at one particular provider. But this is going to happen with any large contract. So, if we’re talking about US money, we’re talking about US AID, and to a certain extent, the State Department.
Passport: And it is US AID that has launched a probe into this?
MacKenzie: That’s correct.
Passport: Ok. You write that it’s an “open secret” in Kabul. How did you first find out about it?
MacKenzie: I found out about it…I spend an awful lot of time in the South. I was working on a project in Helmand province and because of my work there, I came into contact with a lot of subcontractors, a lot of Afghans who had very close relations with the Taliban, and a lot of internationals who were off working with these subcontractors. And this was not a secret. This was something people would talk about in the evening over a few beers. They were not surprised by it, and were not going to any great lengths to cover it up. Of course, they weren’t talking to me as a journalist; they were talking to me as a friend. But this is not something that is a very big secret within the aid community.
Passport: So it’s been going on for years.
MacKenzie: Yes, it has.
Passport: And the US Embassy? To what extent are they aware of what’s going on?
MacKenzie: I think that everyone assumes that this is happening, everyone as the US embassy officials, everyone knows that it is happening. It is almost impossible to trace. I would not want to suggest that the US embassy was complicit in this. It’s simply something that they have very little control over. You either don’t do any assistance here, or you accept that there’s going to be graft and corruption. And part of that graft and corruption is money going to the Taliban.
Passport: The Taliban actually maintains an office in Kabul where deals are made with aid contractors and protection money is exchanged. Do people know where that office is?
MacKenzie: No, no. That is a very big secret. And that mechanism, this is a very high-level contract negotiation center. This is not envelopes stuffed full of cash that are being given to people just paying the Taliban not to attack a certain section of road. These are major contracts where the Taliban have a contracting officer that looks at them, that decides how much they’re going to take. And then they go into a back and forth negotiation.
Passport: Interesting. Would you be willing to venture a guess, approximately, on how much money is being exchanged?
MacKenzie: It’s almost impossible to say because you can put a figure on assistance coming into the country, which is several billion dollars a year. But we’re not talking about ten percent or twenty percent of that amount going to the Taliban. We’re talking about ten, fifteen, twenty, up to thirty percent of the money that actually goes into Afghanistan. Which, in some cases, is a very small proportion of the overall contract. Most of the money goes to international salaries, security, housing, things like that.
Passport: How would you compare this to the poppy trade?
MacKenzie: Well, that’s another question, since, again, we’re not really sure how much money they’re getting from the poppy trade. But I would be willing to venture a guess, to speculate that this is at least as big a source of income for the Taliban as narcotics, as the poppy trade is.
Passport: And this, in the end, is money that they’re using, for example, to support their troops, to buy weapons that they aim at US and NATO forces?
Passport: Ok. So it’s very important for them then.
MacKenzie: Yes, it is.
Passport: It seems like a very hard problem to address, though, because if aid workers and contractors are going to be targeted if they don’t make these payments to the Taliban, then it seems like as long as the security situation is as it is today, these payments are going to continue.
MacKenzie: That’s correct, it’s a very stark choice: you’re either going to pay off the Taliban or you’re not going to be able to carry out any assistance.
Passport: Ok, I think at this point I’d like to open the floor up to questions. If you have a question, if you press *6 on your phone, I’ll ask you to start speaking and whoever wants to go first, go ahead.
No questions at this point? Someone must have a question.
Caller 1: I do have a question for Jean.
Passport: Ok, can you indentify yourself sir, please?
Caller 1: I am (inaudible). I am calling from Atlanta, Georgia.
Passport: Ok, go ahead.
Caller 1: Actually, I did send a question yesterday, I don’t know whether she got it or not, but I can read the question now. My question is, the US government is not responsible for the Taliban today, the monsters they are, and if your answer is here: how would you describe the situation now? How is Obama going to control the situation?
Passport: Ok, so the question is, to what extent is the US government responsible for the Taliban? And what should the Obama government do about it?
MacKenzie: I’m not sure I understand, exactly, the question. Do you mean to what extent are we responsible for the origin of the Taliban? Or to what extent are we responsible now the Taliban now? Because I think what I’d like to say about that is what we’ve seen is a pattern, a cycle, where the more troops come in, the operation that we conduct, the stronger the Taliban gets. When we go into an area and we start conducting a sensitive military operation, we provoke a reaction from the local populace. That seems to widen the resistance, so we’ve got an unfortunate spiral where the more fighting we do, trying to clear areas, the worse things get. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I think General McChrystal’s strategy is the right one, in terms of trying to cut down on civilian casualties. But, along with that, we’re going to have to put an awful lot more money and effort into development and I don’t see that happening just yet.
Passport: It’s clearly a very difficult environment to do that in.
MacKenzie: Yes, it certainly is.
Passport: Go ahead, sir.
Caller 2: This is Troy Murray. I’d just like to go back to the question of elections and get your sense of how you see the process playing out from here.
MacKenzie: Well, the big question is whether they’re going to have a second round of elections. It’s very curious, because the end is not in doubt. And the end has not been in doubt from the very beginning. Karzai will be reelected and Karzai will be the President for the next five years. What we’re talking about now is a process and whether the Electoral Complaints Commission and the international community is going to try to insist, in some way, on a second round, to give a little more semblance of credibility to these elections, which have been very badly damaged by all of the talk of fraud. But in the final analysis, there is no other possible outcome. Karzai is going to win either this time with these allegations of fraud hanging over his head, or there will be a second round at more time, more expense, and more possibility of violence, and he will win that second round.
Caller 2: This is a follow-up. Do you think we’re making the same mistake here that we’ve made elsewhere and wedding our fortunes too closely to a single individual?
MacKenzie: I’m not sure we had much choice. I think the mistake we made was in trying to pretend that what was happening was not happening. We decided we were going to back Karzai and we were going to back — we didn’t call it backing Karzai — we called it “backing the process.” And because that’s what we were doing, we had to make that process a success. I think that on the day of the elections, President Obama, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, and UN Representative Kai Eide of Afghanistan all rushed, within an hour, to say that these elections were a success. Which, I think is indicative of the mistake we made, which was that this had to be a success, no matter what, because we needed them to be successful. They were not successful. They were anything but. And now, three weeks later, the international community has had to back down and admit that they were wrong.
Passport: Jean, do you have any indication yet what the interactions between the Obama administration and Karzai’s government are at this point about this issue?
MacKenzie: Well, not amicable, that is for sure. But Karzai, as one of his rivals, Ashraf Ghani, pointed out, is a brilliant tactition. He has maneuvered the United Stated into a corner, too. They can’t stop backing him, they can’t stop funding him, they can’t really admit that the entire process was a sham. So, they’re going to have to go with it. The Electoral Complaints Commission is going to have to sift through thousands and thousands of complaints. And then we’ll see what happens. But, in the final analysis, there’s no alternative to Karzai.
Passport: It boggles the mind, in these circumstances, how someone like Karzai, who would clearly win anyway, he would have had to wait for the runoff, why he became implicated in this massive fraud.
MacKenzie: Well, I think he did not trust the process and did not trust the people. And in Afghanistan today, unfortunately, this is simply how business is done. Karzai spent a year and a half getting the system into place in order to falsify these elections. And everyone carried out their roles, some not too well, which is why the fraud was so blatant. But, yes, it is a very bad time for the future of Afghanistan.
Passport: Right. You had a very nice piece on the elections that people can find on the Afghanistan page on our website, globalpost.com. Are there any additional questions?
Caller 3: I had a question, if I may.
Passport: Sure, go ahead.
Caller 3: Hi, this is Greg. My question was just with the sophisticated way that we have of tracking money through systems these days, like with the FBI and CIA, that there wouldn’t be some way for these agencies going after these terrorist groups to have seen the flow of money going through, you deposits of a certain amounts going in and withdrawals coming out, that some kind of connection wasn’t seen or couldn’t be used to see this in the future and prevent it.
MacKenzie: Well, the way that things are spent in these contracts are very large amounts of cash, are paid out. And much of the payment that is going to the Taliban is in cash. There’s also a system in Afghanistan, in this part of the world, called hawala, which involved absolutely no paperwork and no money trail. You have a certain amount of money given to an Afghan, he makes his own call and a certain amount of money is given to his brother or his cousin in London or New York or Paris or Rome. It’s very, very difficult to track this. But, I agree with you. When people were making estimates of the Taliban getting up to three hundred or four hundred million dollars a year from the narcotic industry, they may have been lumping together, unwittingly, payments that were actually coming to them from foreign assistance.
Passport: Ok, any other questions? I think we have time for one or two more.
Caller 4: My question is towards the Pakistani government. How can we trust the Pakistani government to that extend whether they are truly supporting the international military experts and others to control this Taliban in their region as well as Afghanistan? Because Pakistan has its own special interests on India, because India is one of the donors and doing a lot of projects there, and they may not like India and Afghanistan getting closer.
MacKenzie: That question is a little above my pay grade. There are smarter minds than mine trying to figure that one out. Of course, Pakistan is one of the major players in the area and many people in Afghanistan think that the Pakistani government is playing a destabilizing role in Afghanistan to keep that Afghan-India friendship from growing. So, I agree with you that it is a problem, I agree with you that there is quite a bit of distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As to how that’s going to be addressed, I think that’s a very, very big question.
Caller 4: Thank you , ma’am.
Passport: I think we had one other question?
Caller 5: Yes, this is Christian, calling from Atlanta. My question was, I reading one of your comments that followed your article on the Afghan Taliban, posted by Ralph Lopez, he was arguing, basically, that with forty percent employment in the country and the major way the Taliban was able to get recruits was by offering them low wages, around eight dollars a day, and therefore many of these local Afghans had no other options than to join the Taliban to put food on the table, and that one of the solutions to this problem would be to offer a cash-for-work program for low-skill, labor jobs. And I was wondering what your thoughts were on this proposed solution.
MacKenzie: Well, there are capital work programs in Afghanistan in Taliban-controlled areas. People have been moderately successful, but we’re not just talking about money. We’re talking about people who are going to risk their lives in Cash for Work programs and Cash for Work programs pay less than the Taliban do. So, you might get three dollars a day for digging out a ditch or laying a cobblestone road. But, you may also get killed by the Taliban for doing it because you’re cooperating with foreigners. So, it’s safer, oddly enough, to throw in your lot and get eight or ten dollars a day from the Taliban, where, at least, they know what side you’re on. And in some case, oddly enough, if you have large families, which Afghans do, you might have one or two of the sons working with the Taliban, another son working with the police, and another son working on a Cash for Work program. And in that way, the family feels that they’ve hedged their bets.
Passport: So, the Taliban is just another job, essentially.
MacKenzie: Yes, in many cases, it is.
Passport: Alright, Jean, I’d like to thank you very much for joining us today. Keep up the good work in Afghanistan and stay safe, above all.
MacKenzie: Okay, thank you David.
Passport: And thank you to everyone else for joining us, let me remind the people who are not Passport members: if you’re interested in supporting GlobalPost’s journalism or in joining our service, you can find out more information at globalpost.com/passport. Thank you very much.