Investigative journalist and author of The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. He’s written the cover story in the latest issue of The Nation magazine, "How the US Funds the Taliban."
In a last-minute dissent ahead of a critical war cabinet meeting on escalating the Afghan war, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has cast doubt on a troop escalation until the Afghan government can address corruption and other internal problems. Meanwhile, a report reveals how the US government is financing the very same insurgent forces in Afghanistan that American and NATO soldiers are fighting. Investigative journalist Aram Roston traces how the Pentagon’s civilian contractors in Afghanistan end up paying insurgent groups to protect American supply routes from attack. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The US ambassador to Afghanistan is warning against sending more troops to fight in the Afghan war. In a last-minute dissent, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry sent two cables this week casting doubt on a troop escalation until the Afghan government can address corruption and other internal problems.
Well, today we turn to a new report that reveals how the US government is financing the very same insurgent forces in Afghanistan that American and NATO soldiers are fighting. "How the US Funds the Taliban" is the cover story of the latest issue of The Nation magazine.
Investigative journalist Aram Roston traces how the Pentagon’s civilian contractors in Afghanistan end up paying insurgent groups to protect American supply routes from attack. The practice of buying the Taliban’s protection is not a secret. US military officials in Kabul told Roston that a minimum of ten percent of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts consists of payments to the Taliban.
AMY GOODMAN: That translates into millions of dollars being funneled to the Taliban. This summer, anticipating a surge of US troops, the military expanded its trucking contracts in Afghanistan by 600 percent to a total of over $2 billion.
Well, Aram Roston joins us now here in our firehouse studio, the author of the book The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. His latest piece, "How the US Funds the Taliban," was supported by the investigative fund at the Nation Institute.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! When did you return from Afghanistan?
ARAM ROSTON: About three weeks ago.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us what you found. How does the US fund the Taliban?
ARAM ROSTON: Well, it’s bizarre, but the US has to maintain, obviously, all these bases, these forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout Afghanistan. They have to supply them. The way they supply them is trucking convoys, civilian trucking convoys. They call it “Host Nation Trucking,” and what they mean is that Afghan-owned trucks and Afghan drivers drive everything. They drive all the supplies, the guns, the MRAPs, the ammunition. Just everything needs to get to these — every part of Afghanistan. And they’ve issued these large contracts, but they don’t protect the convoys. By definition, these convoys are driving through some very tough terrain, controlled by warlords, by the Taliban, by insurgents.
And what they’ve ended up doing — and this is apparently unanimous, with some small exceptions — is the security companies reach arrangements with the local Taliban, the local warlords and various insiders to pay them off for protection. It’s very much like an extortion racket and very much like a protection racket, and it amounts to huge amounts of money. Some say ten percent, some say far more than ten percent, of the convoys. Some say that most of the security budgets are going towards these payments to the Taliban and to the tribal leaders and the warlords. The fact is the US often doesn’t even know who they’re paying off. These contractors don’t necessarily know who they’re paying off. They just know they’re bad guys. So they’ve ended up with this bizarre situation, and there’s nothing they can really do about it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, your article goes into the shadowy — the network of companies, and specifying several of the companies that are involved. And you point how many of them have — are headed by relatives of people who are high up in the Karzai government. Could you talk about, for instance, Watan Risk, is it?
ARAM ROSTON: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And NCL Holdings?
ARAM ROSTON: Yeah, that was — the original mission I was doing was — original story I was doing was this sort of web of nepotism and corruption, inside deals, in security contracts and logistics contracts. And it expanded when I — people all started trying to tell me, “You should do this story, as well.”
Watan Risk is an extraordinary company. It’s run by the — by two brothers, the Popal brothers. They’re relatives of the President of the country. They’re also convicted felons here in the United States for drug offenses. And one of them was an interpreter and basically a spokesman for the Taliban at the end of the Taliban regime in 2001. And yet, here he is now. He runs, and his brother — he and his brother run this very lucrative, very important, very big security company, Watan Risk Group. According to many people I spoke to, it runs this very important corridor. It controls it, because it has a relationship with the key warlord and commands who controls that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And that corridor is Highway 1, is it?
ARAM ROSTON: Highway 1, which runs through Kandahar, which leads you to the South, leads you to, in many cases — basically leads you to the war zone. This is where you need to go to get to the conflict, to the border, and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us where you start this article? You’re mentioning these people, like Ahmad Rateb Popal, but talking about what happened October 29th, 2001, the news conference.
ARAM ROSTON: It’s pretty bizarre, but on October 29th, 2001, there’s this news conference in Islamabad. If you remember, while the US began its campaign against the Taliban, there was a Taliban ambassador in Pakistan who was talking as a representative. His main interpreter and representative was this English-speaking gentleman who looked very distinctive. He had an eye patch, he was missing an arm, and he had this huge beard and this black turban. This is Ahmad Rateb Popal. He has now trimmed his beard. He looks different. He still has the eye patch. But he’s now an international businessman, rather than the interpreter for the Taliban. He’s a relative of, like I say, of the President of Afghanistan. And it’s one of these things where everybody seems to have to pay this company if they want security along this very important route. And they control convoy traffic heading through that region.
JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the other companies you mention is NCL Holdings, which is run by the son of the Minister of Defense, has a $380 million contract. But the Minister of Defense claims he knows nothing about the son’s contract.
ARAM ROSTON: I believe him. It’s a really interesting thing. In other words, he maybe just — the son, everybody knows who he is, of course. Everybody knows he’s — his name is Hamed Wardak. His father’s name is Rahim Wardak. Rahim Wardak was a mujahideen leader during the fight against the Soviets. The US worked with him. Case officers like Milt Bearden, a top CIA official at the time, and the station chief in Islamabad, he worked with him. The fellow shows up in the book Charlie Wilson’s War, as does Milt Bearden, the CIA official.
So, somehow this general’s son ends up starting this — he’s an American, American Afghan. He starts this company called NCL and, last year — well, 2009, wins this contract that, over the summer, blossoms into a $360 million contract to transport American goods throughout the country. It’s incredibly lucrative.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a guy who was raised and schooled in the United States, valedictorian at Georgetown 1997, a Rhodes scholar, then interned at the think tank American Enterprise Institute.
ARAM ROSTON: Exactly. This is — he’s very much an American, but very much an Afghan, and very much the son of the Defense Minister. The Defense Ministry is obviously key, because that’s where a lot of US resources are going. That’s — we’re supposed to be training up the Afghan army, which is overseen by the Defense Ministry, and the Afghan security forces, controlled by the Defense Ministry. So that ministry is so important.
But what’s so interesting is I did —- the only person on that case who would talk to me on the record was the father. And he, himself, seemed embarrassed, when I met him, about the whole situation. He just didn’t know why his son had got the contract. He didn’t realize it was that big a contract. He realized his son’s company was doing
AMY GOODMAN: And again, the contract was...?
ARAM ROSTON: Was for logistics. It was called Host Nation Trucking.
AMY GOODMAN: And the amount?
ARAM ROSTON: Well, it was a sixth of this $2.2 billion contract. It was $360 million. And even a relative of the President -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense is that a portion of that goes, obviously, to pay off the local warlords or Taliban when they’re delivering stuff.
ARAM ROSTON: I have very good sources who told me that. The assured me it — unfortunately, this — from this contract, too, a bulk of it, good portion of it, goes directly to these insurgent leaders to ensure safe passage, you can say, you could call it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What do the — you quoted several American military officers in the field who acknowledged knowing about this and expressing disgust about it. Could you talk about that?
ARAM ROSTON: Yeah, that was with David Haight, who runs the Third Brigade of the Tenth Mountain Division, and he oversees Logar. His brigade oversees Logar Province and Wardak Province, and Highway 1 goes through part of it. And I asked him about it, and he said he was aware of it, and he said it repulsed him. It repulsed him that this was the situation. But he said, “It is what it is.” They know that’s the way it is. They know that’s the way American contractors are handling business. And at this point, they feel there’s nothing they can do about it.
Now, there are some things — the point is, a lot of people know about it there. And Afghans are very upset by it, too. A top Afghan security official brought it to my attention. He says he’d been trying to fix it in secret for a long time, bring it to the Americans’ attention, and little has happened. American contractors, security contractors and trucking contractors, said they’ve brought it to the attention of American officials, American military officials. And they assure me the American military officials have been told, you know, many times. These people don’t want to be doing this. They don’t want to be paying money to the people that the US is fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Obama urged President Hamid Karzai to tackle corruption in his country. In an interview on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer this week, President Karzai said he was trying to rout out corruption, but added that foreign money is making the problem worse.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: We also mean corruption of a different kind, which is a lot more serious, which is new to Afghanistan. That is with the arrival of a lot of tough money to Afghanistan, the lack of transparency in the award of contracts, the serious corruption in implementing projects. It’s the international community also that shares responsibility with us, and that’s what I hope we can correct together. But the stigma falls mainly on Afghanistan, because that’s where it happens.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Hamid Karzai. Aram Roston, your response?
ARAM ROSTON: He raises a very good point. It is international money. Much of it’s American money. This contract I just mentioned, $2.2 billion, that’s like a big chunk of Afghanistan’s GNP. They functionally don’t have much of a budget. It’s all international money coming in.
You can see a lot of — there has been an effort by US investigators to now probe US contract steering, bribes. There’s cases in American court now of people taking bribes, people giving bribes. But there’s far more that hasn’t been done. It’s a really — ironically, he’s raising an important point. But, of course, he’s also steering the issue to say, “Don’t look at me. Look at them.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t the reality that if the — if these companies did not pay these bribes or this extortion, then the US military would have to actually defend these convoys to be able to get supplies to its troops, which would mean more American casualties, so this is, in effect, a way to avoid more American casualties in the war?
ARAM ROSTON: That’s right, but is that a smart way to fight a war? That’s the issue.
AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to go back to the Popal brothers for a minute, Hamid Karzai’s cousin, as you said, where you begin the piece, talking about them being businessmen now. You say, though, here in the United States, one, for example, pleaded guilty to — what was it? Heroin?
ARAM ROSTON: Heroin, yeah, conspiracy. One was a —-
AMY GOODMAN: In 1997.
ARAM ROSTON: One was 1997 or 1996, whatever I wrote, and one was in ’89 was -— he was charged. And he was released from prison in ’97. There were two brothers.
AMY GOODMAN: Conspiring to import more than a kilo of heroin.
ARAM ROSTON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Court records show he was released from prison in 1997.
ARAM ROSTON: Yeah, it was right here in New York City, both cases. That’s why it’s such a fascinating case — a fascinating place to do reporting. It’s like a carnival of really strange characters who are getting very, very rich off this war.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, as President Obama — word comes out of the war cabinet he had yesterday that he is raising questions about the surge. We’ll see what happens. Aram Roston, thanks so much for being with us, investigative journalist. He wrote the book The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Life, Adventures, and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi. But he has the latest story in The Nation magazine called "How the US Funds the Taliban."