WASHINGTON -- A new congressional report says the U.S. government is inadvertently funding "a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of Afghan warlords" to safeguard supply lines for U.S. and NATO troops.
The report, appropriately named "Warlord, Inc.," is the product of six months of investigation by the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. It focused on the Pentagon's system of outsourcing to private companies the job of moving supplies in Afghanistan, and leaving it up to them to provide their own security.
At a hearing on the report's findings on June 22, committee chairman John Tierney (Democrat-Massachusetts) said the Department of Defense's "systematic failure of management and oversight of contractors along the Afghan supply chain" has created a "disaster."
"The Department of Defense outsourced almost all operational components of the supply chain that provides our troops with the food, water, fuel and equipment they need do their job. Critically, despite laws and regulations mandating strict oversight of armed private security guards in conflict areas, the department outsourced management responsibility for those hired gunmen to other contractors,” Tierney said.
Warlords And Strongmen
The money to pay those hired gunmen -- who appear on the scene in the form of ad-hoc private security companies -- comes from a U.S. government contract named "Host Nation Trucking" worth some $2.2 billion.
According to the report, "The principal private security subcontractors are warlords, strongmen, commanders and militia leaders who compete with the Afghan central government for power and authority."
Convoys that refused to pay the mafia-style protection money were targeted for attack, according to the congressional investigators.
Tierney said the whole system "runs afoul" of the Defense Department's own rules and may be undermining the U.S. strategic effort in Afghanistan.
"This contract appeared to have fueled warlordism, extortion, corruption, and maybe even funded the enemy. United States taxpayer dollars are feeding a protection racket in Afghanistan that would make Tony Soprano proud," he said.
The report calls protection payments "a significant potential source of funding for the Taliban," citing numerous documents, incidents reports and emails that refer to attempts at Taliban extortion along the road in exchange for safe passage.
According to one testimony in the report, in some areas of volatile Helmand Province, private security guards have demanded as much as $15,000 to protect just one NATO truck on the supply line.
The Price Of Business?
The U.S. and its NATO allies have little choice but to rely on private contractors to support the coalition's military and civilian operations in the country. Troops are based in no less than 200 separate locations across the geographically demanding terrain.
A panel of Defense Department procurement and acquisition specialists summoned to appear before the committee largely denied having witnessed the type of abuses laid out in the report or realizing the true nature of the private security companies.
Representative Jeff Flake (Republican-Arizona) reminded one witness, Gary Motsek, the assistant deputy under secretary of defense for program support, that under Department of Defense contracting rules, no weapon more deadly than an AK-47 should be used to escort an armored convoy.
Referring to a photo of a security truck he described as packed with armaments, the lawmaker asked whether Motsek disputed “the findings of this report that indicate that virtually every convoy that goes out is guarded by subcontractors who carry things far in excess of what the Department of Defense allows?"
When members of the panel replied with explanations about exceptions to DoD rules, Flake showed a flash of exasperation.
"I would feel a lot better to hear somebody say, 'Hey, this is the price of business in Afghanistan. This is all we can do We can't be like the Soviets who devoted three-quarters of their force structure to protecting supply routes, that's not the most efficient way. We understand that,” he said.
“But just to say, 'It's not occurring, we don't see it, so it must not be occurring. That just seems a little too much to hear," he added.
A 'Private Army'
At another point, a witness told the committee that the Department of Defense is on a two-year timetable to transition the responsibility for safeguarding Afghanistan's roads away from private security contractors and to the Afghan Army.
The United States has a long-term reconstruction plan for Afghanistan that calls for a civilian corps of Americans to remain in the country for years to come.
Representative Peter Welch (Democrat-Vermont) said the two years it will take for that transition to occur could exacerbate an already serious problem.
"As we're doing that over a two-year timetable, there's a $2 billion contract that is going to, basically, a private individuals, who then now have under their command, and dependent on them for millions of dollars, a separate army,” Welch said.
“Are those two developments incompatible?” he asked. “That is, on the one hand wanting to build up capacity in Afghanistan under the control of the government, while at the same time, we're providing an enormous financial incentive to a private army, which is not going to lightly give up the benefits of these contracts."
A general on the panel could only reply that, for now, the current arrangement -- however flawed -- is a "temporary necessity."
The report is just the latest of many blows to the international effort to pull Afghanistan out of the grip of insurgents.
The number of casualties has spiked dramatically in intense summer fighting and allied support continues to waver and wane. In the United States, enthusiasm for the more than eight-year-old war is low among the public and in Congress.
And now the mission's top commander in the field, the man President Obama has charged with bringing the war to a successful conclusion by next summer, could be on the verge of losing his job.
U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal was ordered back from the field to appear at the White House today to explain why, in a new magazine article, he and his staff made comments that are unmistakably critical of top administration authorities, including Vice President Joseph Biden.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would not rule out the possibility that McChrystal could lose his post.
Should that happen, administration officials will have a bigger challenge in Afghanistan than corruption in the supply chain. They will have to find a new top commander.
with additional agency reports