x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Afghan 'highway warlords' funnel US security payments to Taliban, says report

Private militia retained as contractors to protect supply routes give money to militants to ensure safe passage.

An Afghan human rights official warns that paying warlords creates a cycle of blackmail. Above, the remains of an auto-rickshaw after an explosion near Jalalabad, east of Kabul.
An Afghan human rights official warns that paying warlords creates a cycle of blackmail. Above, the remains of an auto-rickshaw after an explosion near Jalalabad, east of Kabul.

The US may inadvertently be funding the Taliban because its military pays Afghan warlords millions of dollars a year to protect highways and convoys that provide vital supplies to its troops, according to a highly critical congressional report. The network of "highway warlords" who are contracted by the US to secure Afghanistan's lawless roads with heavily armed private armies may in turn be giving Taliban militants money not to attack the lorries carrying food, fuel and ammunition, an investigation by the House of Representative's National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee found.

The report comes as the US president Barack Obama's promised surge of 30,000 troops was rising to a crescendo with thousands of troops arriving every week to retake territory from the Taliban and turn around the lagging nine-year war. But the US may be undermining its own mission to shore up the weak Afghan government by arming and funding gunmen who answer to no one, said John Tierney, a Democratic representative who leads the subcommittee, in the report.

"The contracts fuel warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents," he wrote. The defence department has outsourced its supply chain to private firms and the US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) contract is split among eight Afghan, American and Arab companies which provide 70 per cent of supplies to 200 bases across Afghanistan. It was set up so US soldiers could concentrate on counter-insurgency instead of logistics.

But the US government has no oversight over the system. The contractors have repeatedly told the US military that the money may be funding the Taliban but no one paid attention. "Many believe that the highway warlords who provide security in turn make protection payments to insurgents to co-ordinate safe passage. This belief is evidenced in numerous documents, incident reports, and e-mails that refer to attempts at Taliban extortion along the road," the report said.

Hamed Elmi, the deputy spokesman for Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said the government was trying to bring under control private security companies who have operated outside the law for years. "In the beginning there was hundreds of these companies who secure offices, roads, buildings so we said they must register or dissolve. Those who don't have licence are illegally armed groups. We are asking our friends in the international community that they shouldn't be there," he said.

So far, 52 security companies have registered with the ministry of interior, Mr Elmi added. "Our stance is we really support and appreciate the US army and their non-governmental organisations but we always insist all these efforts should go through our government." Afghans have been complaining for years about the threat posed by the highway warlords but US coalition forces and Afghan authorities have done nothing, said Nader Nadery, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, an independent rights body.

"It is a matter of high concern to us," he said in an interview from Kabul. "In the short term these warlords may prove useful for objectives to getting convoys to a destination, but in the long term they become the basic source of insecurity in the country if they are empowered financially. We have reports of warlords who have not been paid and have attacked a convoy to show they are the only ones who can only protect these convoys. They have become a source of insecurity and blackmail for the international community."

The eight contracting companies are responsible for securing the cargo but they subcontract protection to shadowy Afghan militias. A typical convoy of 300 supply lorries travelling from Kabul to Kandahar on the insurgent-infested motorway linking the two cities needs a force of up to 500 Afghan guards armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the report said. "If the United States is going to use small armies of private security contractors to defend its massive supply chain in a war zone, the department of defence must take direct responsibility for those contractors to ensure robust oversight," the report said.

Mr Nadery said the issue reinforces the perception among Afghans that US forces are not serious about bringing security to Afghanistan. "Everyone talks about rule of law and authority of the government. But when in practice Afghans see they are contracting and financially empowering the warlords it brings people to a level where they question the statements about the rule of law and good governance."

@Email:hghafour@thenational.ae