Cashing in on Corruption and Political Connections

By Jamaal Long
Maverick Press Blog
January 21, 2010

The dark shades the Marine wore masked the sun from his eyes. Despite being unable to see any discernible facial expressions that would betray what mood he may be in, his resolute stature and the irritable tone in his voice said it plainly: the soldiers he had been sent to train were not getting it, and he was losing his cool.

An Afghan soldier was at the mercy of the Marine’s wrath as he stood before him; his voice thundered at him. The Marine raised his arm and thrust forward his index finger piercing through the air to rebuff the soldier like a schoolteacher does a disobedient child.

“How is he ready?” he demanded. The translator quickly interpreted for him. The Marine’s tone was incredulous. Here was a soldier the US Marine was sent to train in order for the Afghan army to rise up and take on fearsome enemies like the Taliban and other militants. And yet, the soldier he was addressing did not have any of his gear. He didn’t even have weapon.

“Ready would be on the road. Staged. Ready to move at 8:30,” the Marine declared. Then, as if becoming frustrated with the translator, he barks out his finally command before the translator could finish interpreting. “Come on! Let’s go!”

The Marine is one of the several Embedded Tactical Trainers (ETT) sent to train the Afghan National Army. The number of trainers in Afghanistan has increased by 4,000 bringing the total troop level to 68,000. The ultimate goal of the Afghan Ministry of Defense is for the Afghan National Army to amass a force of 260,000 troops.

It is the task of the ETT to make sure that once this goal is reached, the Afghan National Army can take control and defend the country.

Building a seasoned corps of experts and sending them to Afghanistan is considered a high priority. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has raised awareness to the issue, and senior officers familiar with the matter have cited too few volunteers as part of the trouble.

With too few experts and the “lack of adequate preparation time” before being deployed in Afghanistan, coupled with the “absence of cultural awareness and understanding of the specific tribal and governance situation,” Afghanistan is seeing the return of old Cold War fighters.

Despite the lack of volunteers on the United States’ part, Afghanistan is still able to recruit volunteers. To the dismay of many of those familiar with United States tumultuous history in Afghanistan—which involved the United States being on “intimate terms” with extremist including sending weapons to the Taliban to fight the Soviet Union—this new strategy should feel like a case of déjà vu.

When the security in the Kunduz province declined, the governor and the intelligence community moved quickly to correct the problem. They needed a group with experience that the US grappled to obtain. So they called on the mujahedeen.

Robert Dryfuss, in his book Devil’s Game: How the United States Unleashed Fundamentalist Islam, wrote that mujahedeen were trained by the Green Berets and the US Navy SEALs in US facilities on the East Coast under the oversight of Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is currently President Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

Their training consisted of automatic weapons, timer and explosive, and remote-control devices for triggering mines and bombs. Some of the volunteers later became foot soldiers for Al-Qaeda. One of the volunteers included Osama bin Laden.

When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, all that was left was the mujahedeen—who had a gruesome way of dealing with its opposition. They would “torture their victims by first cutting off their noses, ears and genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another.”

The Taliban was able to repel the warlords with the leadership of Mullah Omar in September 1996.

The Taliban, however, did leave one social ill in particular to bear its mark of irrevocable despair from Afghanistan to the cities in the United States—facilitated in part by CIA—and its residual effects can still be seen to this day. It is the opium trade. It was and still is a booming market.

[efoods]The Taliban did not move immediately to ban poppy cultivation; they even collected a 20 percent zakat tax. Finally, after the Taliban did take action, American narcotics agents were stunned. The crop had been completely wiped out in less than a year. It was an amazing feat seeing how in 2006 Afghanistan accounted for 90 percent of world’s supply of opium.

The complete eradication of opium came at a cost to the farmers who had to grow crops such as wheat instead. In the lucrative business of opium, farmers got their cash up-front; with crops like wheat, farmers don’t get paid until their crops are sold.

With the Taliban removed from power, however, the opium trade is back in full-swing. US policy originally considered it imperative that the crop be purged, now that view has switched gears, and an alternative solution has been decided.

Richard Holbrooke, US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the new policy is to “downgrade crop eradication.”

“We’re going to upgrade our efforts,” Holbrooke said, “to go after the main drug traffickers.”

It may prove to be a daunting task in light of the new revelation—fraught with ever increasing corruption. If Holbrooke wants US policy to reflect the actions it plans to take, then US forces may be obligated, at the very least, to conduct an investigation into allegedly the most connected drug offender in all of the country—the president’s brother: Ahmed Wali Karzai.

Ambitious investigative news reporters have set out themselves to unravel the mystery of the possible CIA connection with Wali Karzai. If what happened to Tom Lasseter, a reporter for McClatchy news, serves as an example it might be an ill-advised decision to press the issue. Lasseter wrote in his report that he was threatened with physical violence after questioning Karzai and he immediately left the country.

Another American connection to heroine has come full circle in Afghanistan. The story began back in 1988 when a man by the name Ahmad Rateb Popal, former mujahedeen member, was charged with conspiring to ship over a kilo of heroine into the United States.

After being released from prison in 1998, Popal teamed up with his brother Rashid Popal—also convicted of heroine smuggling—and they returned to Afghanistan. The circumstances in Afghanistan could prove to be advantageous for the two brothers. Because now, the country is ruled by President Hamid Karzai—the Popal’s cousin.

The Popal brothers have recently parlayed their entrepreneurial knowledge they learned from the underground economics of the heroine business to their new venture: security.

The name of the security company is Watan Risk Management. It is the private military arm of Watan Group, a conglomerate involved in telecommunications and logistics.

The company’s senior personnel have all the skills necessary for the undertaking they are engaged in. Its staff consists of ex-British military from Special Services.

In a strange twist of irony, one of Watan’s clients is the US Department of Defense. Watan protects Afghan trucks carrying American supplies from Kabul to Kandahar. It is the warlords’ association with the Taliban that keeps the people and supplies being transported safe. The US is essentially force to pay a protection racket to the group it is suppose to be fighting against.

“The Army is basically paying the Taliban not to shoot them,” one American executive told the Guardian. “You are paying the people in local areas—some are warlords, some are politicians in the police force—to move your trucks.”

The prices charged produce a lucrative return. NCL Holdings has a $360 million contract for two years from the US military. Millions of dollars paid to the company snakes its way back President Karzai’s cousins the Popal brothers. Hamed Wardak is the chief principal for the company. He is also the son of Afghan defense minister General Rahim Wardak who himself is a former mujahedeen leader.

Shipping US supplies across the country is risky business, especially when companies are banned from arming themselves with anything more than a rifle. The stipulation guarantees the attackers have the upper hand. If it comes down to a confrontation, it will be transporters, armed with AK-47s, against the Tailban, armed with rocket-propelled grenades shooting from 3,000 feet away.

The decision not to pay is met with immediate reprisal. A US-owned firm called the Four Horsemen International opted not to pay. Because of the insolence they showed toward the warlords and insurgents, they are attacked on every mission.

In Baghlan province and Helmand province, eight police officers were killed. Unfortunately for the police, they are targeted more than foreign troops. It is the job of the Embedded Tactical Trainers to prepare the Afghan National Army to defend the innocent against these attacks.

But no such urgency is present among the recruits. Some are dangerously unprepared. Some have no gear. Some have no weapons.

As one Marine noted, even if they were told in advance that an attack was coming at 8:30 in morning the next day, they would still be drinking tea by 8:29.

He watches his recruits walk down a long, desolate dirt road. He glanced down at the ground in front of him and followed after them.

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