Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghanistan’s $2 bln gravy train

June 28, 2010
File picture of fuel tanker that exploded following an attack in Jalalabad)

File picture of fuel tanker that exploded following an attack in Jalalabad)

The United States cannot win a fight for hearts and minds if it outsources critical missions to unaccountable contractors, U.S. President Barack Obama said during a speech he made as a senator back in 2007.  It hasn’t changed much in Afghanistan since then as a U.S. Congressional investigation into a $2.16 billion supply chain that provides  soldiers everything from muffins to mine-resistant vehicles shows.

Security for the supply chain running through remote and hostile terrain has been outsourced to contractors, “an arrangement that has fuelled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of  warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others,” according to John F.Tierney, chairman of the
subcommittee on National Security And Foreign Affairs.

Here’s a PDFof the report.  It makes for sobering reading.  The scale of the operation is indeed immense, and you can get a glimpse of it if you drove from Kabul to the military base in Bagram.   Container  depots stretch into the arid fields while a long line of brightly decorated trucks jam the entrance to the sprawling military base.

The principal contract supporting the U.S. supply chain in Afghanistan is called Host Nation Trucking, a $2.16 billion contract split among eight Afghan, American, and Middle Eastern companies. Although there are other supply chain contracts, the HNT contract provides trucking for over 70 percent of the total goods and material distributed to U.S. troops in the field, roughly 6,000 to 8,000 truck missions per month. Most of the prime contractors and their trucking subcontractors hire local Afghan security providers for armed protection of the trucking convoys. A typical convoy of 300 supply trucks going from Kabul to Kandahar, for example, will travel with 400 to 500 guards in dozens of trucks armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

The logic behind outsourcing the security of the supply chain is to leave troops free to focus on counter-insurgency. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), by contrast, its army devoted a substantial portion of its total force structure to defending its supply chain.  But this reliance on outsiders has spawned an extraordinary cast of characters and may well be undermining U.S. goals, the report says.

Take for example Commander Ruhullah, the prototype of a new class of warlord in Afghanistan.  Before September 11, 2001, he was relatively unknown in the country.Today, he is the single largest security provider for the U.S. supply chain in Afghanistan, operating along Highway 1, the main transportation artery between Kabul and Kandahar, the congressional report said. Because most U.S. supplies are shipped through Pakistan to Bagram, north of Kabul, while most U.S. troops are surging into Kandahar, in the south, Highway 1 is the critical route for the supply chain within Afghanistan.

Ruhullah commands a small army of over 600 armed guards, the congressional report said.  His men engage in regular combat with insurgent forces. He claims extraordinary casualty figures on both sides (450 of his own men killed in the last year and many more Taliban dead). He readily admits to bribing governors, police chiefs, and army generals. Over a cup of tea in Dubai, he complained to the Subcommittee staff about the high cost of ammunition in Afghanistan -– he says he spends $1.5 million per month on rounds for an arsenal that includes AK-47s, heavy machine guns, and RPGs.51 Villagers along the road refer to him as “the Butcher.”

Despite his critical and sensitive role, nobody from the Department of Defense or the U.S. intelligence community has ever met with him (except for a brief detention by U.S. Special Forces on what he says are false drug charges), the report said. ”Commander Ruhullah is largely a mystery to both the U.S. government and the contractors that employ his services.”

He is just one of dozens of warlords, strongmen and commanders who have found a niche in providing security services to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. By definition, warlords wield military might and violence outside of the theoretical government monopoly on those tools. Warlordism is antithetical to the Afghan state, and ultimately to U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, yet these warlords have flourished providing security for the U.S. supply chain there.

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