Six Years Later, US Still Trying to Find a Way to Keep Corrupt Contractor in Afghanistan

The most depressing part of this McClatchy article on the corrupt USAID contracting in Afghanistan by the construction company, Louis Berger, are six-year old quotes calling for an alternative to Berger.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials repeatedly have voiced frustration about the company’s work.

In May 2004 — three months after then-President George W. Bush publicly praised the company for its quick construction of a section of the Kabul-to-Kandahar Highway — then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad raised concerns about Louis Berger.

“These problems are now beginning to interfere with the credibility of the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan, and require immediate corrective action,” he wrote.

Later that year, Patrick Fine, USAID’s top official in Afghanistan, questioned the quality of schools and clinics whose construction was overseen by Louis Berger. “It is time to cut our losses and put in place an alternative strategy,” he wrote.

Yet six years later, DOJ is preparing to sign either a non-prosecution or a deferred prosecution agreement with the company so that Louis Berger can continue to work in Afghanistan.

The decision to brush aside the allegations and the evidence and keep doing business with Louis Berger, underscores a persistent dilemma for the Obama administration in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Cutting ties with suspect war-zone contractors in Afghanistan would threaten the administration’s effort to rebuild the country and begin withdrawing some of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops there next July.

You know all those articles about the corruption of Karzai’s government? The claims that Afghans are just more tolerant of corruption than Americans? The suggestions that, because it’s a developing country, Afghans have to and do learn to tolerate corruption?

Either we’ve become a banana republic sooner than most people realized (perhaps with the FL county in 2000? Or before that?). Or all those attempts to blame Afghan culture for the corruption there are just lame excuses invented to help us overlook our own apparently intractable tolerance for corruption.

But one way or another, it helps to make Afghanistan far too expensive to achieve whatever “victory” our government pretends to be pursuing.

“The law enforcement approach … mucks up our strategic interests.”

I’ve been tracking the debate within the Administration over whether we should tolerate corruption in Afghanistan in the name of sustaining a war against someone–anyone–in Afghanistan or not for some weeks. Underlying the entire debate is the fact that our goals in Afghanistan–which started as a pursuit of those who struck us on 9/11 and now, having achieved that in Afghanistan, appears to be “not lose”–are totally unclear and apparently divorced from national interest. The debate pits those who believe corruption discredits the Karzai regime and creates support for the Taliban against those who rely on corrupt members of the Karzai regime who claim cracking down on corruption (which is, effectively, the removal of our aid money to private bank accounts in Dubai) will hurt the goal, which they’ve redefined, without Congressional buy-off, as defeating the Taliban.

Here’s how today’s installment, from  By Rajiv Chandrasekaran, captures the debate:

The debate turns largely on how various administration officials view the connection between corruption and the insurgency.

Some officials, principally at the staff level, contend that government venality and incompetence is the principal reason Afghans are joining, supporting or tolerating the Taliban. Other administration and military officials, particularly those at senior levels, maintain that graft is just one of many factors – along with sanctuaries in Pakistan, historical tribal grievances and anger at the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil – that fuel the conflict.

Compounding the challenge is that many Afghan officials who are regarded as corrupt also provide valuable assistance to U.S. forces, including sensitive intelligence. Some, including the palace aide, are on the CIA’s payroll – a fact not initially known to investigators working on the case.

And while this debate seems to be still raging among those in Afghanistan, Chandrasekaran reports that top officials in the Obama Administration have decided to set aside the law enforcement approach for back room deals.

President Obama’s top national security advisers, who will meet with him this week to discuss the problem, do not yet agree on the contours of a new approach, according to U.S. civilian and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy. But the officials said there is a growing consensus that key corruption cases against people in Karzai’s government should be resolved with face-saving compromises behind closed doors instead of public prosecutions.

Once again, the anonymous official embracing corruption does so in the name of our “principal goals.”

“The current approach is not tenable,” said an administration official who, like others interviewed, agreed to discuss internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. “What will we get out of it? We’ll arrest a few mid-level Afghans, but we’ll lose our ability to operate there and achieve our principal goals.”

I’m beginning to believe “our ability to operate there” is our “principal goal.”

All of which discussion sets up this quote from an official in Kabul who has concluded we need to abandon a law enforcement approach.

There is a growing view at the U.S. and NATO headquarters in Kabul that “the law enforcement approach to corruption mucks up our strategic interests,” said the U.S. official there.

Of course, this comment pertains solely to rooting out corruption in Afghanistan. Not detention of captives. Not corruption of American contractors. Not targeting terrorists.

But it sure reveals, in stark fashion, how far we’ve come from our “principal goal” of governance, which is at least partly to support and defend the Constitution, otherwise known as a law enforcement approach.

America Picks and Chooses Among Extra-Legal Entities Destabilizing the World

I wanted to add to what David Dayen had to say about these two stories.

Last week, the WaPo quoted at least two military figures stating, as fact, that the Taliban was a bigger threat to the US mission in Afghanistan than corruption. Based on that judgment, the WaPo suggests “military officials” are now pursuing a policy of tolerating some corruption among Afghan allies.

Military officials in the region have concluded that the Taliban’s insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in some areas and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption could create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.

“There are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure,” said a senior defense official. “But they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban.”


Kandahar is not just a Taliban problem; it is a mafia, criminal syndicate problem,” the senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “That is why it is so complicated. But clearly the most pressing threat is the Taliban.”

Now, the WaPo headline suggests this is definitely the plan, but the story itself admits that it is unclear whether everyone in the Obama Administration agrees with the plan.

It was not immediately clear whether the White House, the State Department and law enforcement agencies share the military’s views, which come at a critical time for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the WaPo piece anonymously quotes an adviser (apparently, but not certainly, civilian) advocating for a crackdown on corruption. And it acknowledges that earlier this year some diplomats and military leaders called to arrest Ahmed Wali Karzai, but Stanley McChrystal scuttled the effort.

So it seems this initiative may come from the DOD side, and if this represents Administration (as opposed to DOD) policy, then clearly not everyone has bought off on it. Which makes it worth cataloging those in the story who might qualify as the “senior defense official” endorsing this new policy. The story quotes the following:

  • Robert Gates, introduced in an apparent non-sequitur between two quotes from the “senior defense official,” visiting two Army units fighting around Kandahar
  • David Petraeus talking about efforts to stem the US contract funds that fuel corruption
  • Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, hailing efforts to set up councils of elders who can decide how to spend reconstruction funds

(Stephen Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations, is also quoted supporting this policy.)

Assuming the WaPo is following accepted practice about anonymous quotations, I’d bet a few pennies that the “senior defense official” declaring that the Taliban is a bigger threat than corruption or drugs is Robert Gates.

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CIA: Money Is Fungible, Except When It Is Our Money

Keep in mind as you read these four paragraphs from WaPo’s follow-up on NYT’s story on Mohammed Zia Salehi that the person quoted is almost certainly from the same CIA that profiles terrorist organizations that, regardless of the charitable work they do, may not legally receive money.

U.S. officials did not dispute that Salehi was on the CIA payroll, which was first reported by The New York Times. But officials sought to draw a distinction between agency payments and corruption probes.

“The United States government had nothing to do with the activities for which this individual is being investigated,” the second U.S. official said. “It’s not news that we sometimes pay people overseas who help the United States do what it needs to get done. . . . Nor should it be surprising, in a place like Afghanistan, that some influential figures can be both helpful and – on their own, separate and apart – corrupt to some degree.”

The flow of CIA money into the region dates to the agency’s support for mujaheddin fighters who ousted Soviet forces three decades ago.

The spigot was tightened during the 1990s but reopened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Much of the money went to support warlords whose militias helped to overthrow the Taliban regime, which had provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda training camps. Salehi had served as an interpreter for one of the most prominent of those warlords, Abdurrashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek whose forces played a critical role in the campaign against the Taliban.

The unnamed “second US official” almost certainly is at the CIA or it’s close vicinity. And this person wants to claim that the money CIA pays to Salehi has absolutely nothing to do with the corruption of which he stands accused. The story elsewhere details the alleged corruption to include sheltering New Ansari (a money transfer firm used to drain aid money out of Afghanistan), doling out cash and cars to Hamid Karzai supporters, and negotiating with the Taliban. So the CIA actually wants to claim that the money it pays to Salehi is not then laundered into payments to Karzai supporters or cooperative Taliban members.

You know, the Taliban? The guys we claim to be fighting, since there are no more al Qaeda members in Afghanistan?

And you have to love the understated irony of the passage, the way Greg Miller and Joshua Partlow remind readers that the CIA has funded a lot of Islamic extremists, including some who loosely cooperated with other mujahadeen groups like those that would become al Qaeda. It’d be nice, mind you, if they also reminded readers that Rashid Dostum is the creep behind the Convoy of Death massacre, but that might just be too much irony for this short passage.

It’s bad enough that the CIA openly admits funding this guy, yet claims their payments could have nothing to do with the deep corruption of which he is accused.

But on top of that there’s this blind belief that these kind of payments never, ever, have blowback.

Dexter Filkins’ Busy Week

Dexter Filkins’ story reporting that a top, corrupt, Hamid Karzai aide is on the CIA payroll is not, by itself, all that interesting.

Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for the National Security Council, appears to have been on the payroll for many years, according to officials in Kabul and Washington. It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both.

But read it in conjunction with Filkins’ other two stories this week. His week started, after all, with the equally unsurprising story that Abdul Ghani Baradar’s capture some months ago may have been orchestrated by Pakistan’s ISI to prevent peace negotiations between Karzai’s government and the Taliban. That story relies on both Pakistani officials boasting of their ploy, Afghan officials explaining how they attempted to negotiate peace, and a Pakistani spiritual leader talking about his role in the attempted negotiations. It includes the allegation–made by a former Afghan official and a NATO official–that Ahmed Wali Karzai had met with Baradar. But perhaps most interesting for our purposes is this passage:

Some American officials still insist that Pakistan-American cooperation is improving, and deny a central Pakistani role in Mr. Baradar’s arrest. They say the Pakistanis may now be trying to rewrite history to make themselves appear more influential. It was American intellgence that led to Mr. Baradar’s capture, an American official said.

“These are self-serving fairy tales,” the official said. “The people involved in the operation on the ground didn’t know exactly who would be there when they themselves arrived. But it certainly became clear, to Pakistanis and Americans alike, who we’d gotten.”

Other American officials suspect the C.I.A. may have been unwittingly used by the Pakistanis for the larger aims of slowing the pace of any peace talks.

That is, among Filkins’ American sources, one side denies Pakistan would be so tricky with the US (read, the CIA). That person calls the entire story “self-serving fairy tales.” And the other side “suspect[s] the CIA may have been unwittingly used by the Pakistanis.”

That is, among Filkins’ American sources, this story is a debate over whether the CIA is incompetent or not.

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Has Aafia Siddiqui’s Daughter Surfaced?

Aafia Siddiqui has been at the center of one of the many mysteries flowing from the Bush and Obama administrations’ conduct of  intelligence operations. A Pakistani native and former MIT scientist, background on Siddiqui can be found several places, including a Seminal diary by ondelette here.

The stories of Siddiqui’s disappearance and  her recent trial in the US are too convoluted to easily summarize.  For purposes of the story now emerging — the possible appearance of Siddiqui’s daughter — the bare bones are that, after returning to Pakistan from the US, Aafia Siddiqui was named by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in his US-run torture interrogations.  Shortly thereafter, in March, 2003, Siddiqui disappeared. Her three children —  oldest son Ahmed, 4-year-old Maryam and her infant son, Suleman — disappeared with her.

After seven years, Siddiqui suddenly reappeared in Afghanistan, where the US alleged she was involved in the attempted shooting of an American soldier as she was being detained for interrogation. When Aafia was  apprehended in Afghanistan, a boy was with her. The US handed off the boy to Afghan intelligence while they shipped Siddiqui to the US for trial.

Pakistan became involved diplomatically over the child and demanded his return. He was handed over to Siddiqui’s family in Pakistan, but her other children have remained missing. There has been controversy in Pakistan over the status of the boy and whether he truly was Siddiqui’s son or not.

Last weekend a girl approximately 12 years old, who spoke only English and Persian and claimed her name was  “Fatima,” was dropped off in front of the home of Siddiqui’s sister.  Some stories indicate an American named “John” may have been with her. Dawn reported a senior policeman described that the girl was:

… wearing a collar “bearing the address of the house in case she wandered off”.

That was last week.

This week, April 11 marks the start of a visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to the Read more

Salt Pit Victim, Gul Rahman, Once Rescued Hamid Karzai

In a follow-up on its story on Gul Rahman’s death in the Salt Pit in November 2002, AP reports that Rahman may have rescued Hamid Karzai from imprisonment by Afghan intelligence in 1994.

After Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war as the Islamic groups that ousted the Soviets fought each other for control of the capital, Kabul.

During fighting in 1994, Karzai, then deputy foreign minister, was arrested by Afghan intelligence, by some accounts because he was in contact with Hekmatyar and other militia leaders to end the conflict.


According to Habib Rahman, his brother, Gul Rahman was sent to fetch Karzai by Hekmatyar, whose forces had long been suspected of firing the rockets at the building. Gul Rahman carried a letter for Karzai from Hekmatyar, saying he had been sent to rescue him at the request of Karzai’s father, the brother said.

Habib Rahman said his brother took Karzai to a safe house in Kabul, then drove with him to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where Karzai was hospitalized for two days.

Mind you, this story is based on what Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Rahman’s brother, Habib, say; Karzai has refused to comment on the story. Hekmatyar raised the incident last year to criticize Karzai. And Hekmatyar, who is back in negotiations with Karzai at the moment, may have his own reasons to escalate this story.

Nevertheless, given the claims that DOJ avoided charging anyone in Rahman’s death because it claimed the US did not control the Salt Pit when he died, the story adds an extra level of irony and legal intrigue.

The Salt Pit was the top-secret name for an abandoned brick factory, a warehouse just north of the Kabul business district that the CIA began using shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. The 10-acre facility included a three-story building, eventually used by the U.S. military to train the Afghan counterterrorism force, and several smaller buildings, which were off-limits to all but the CIA and a handful of Afghan guards and cooks who ran the prison, said several current and former military and intelligence officers.

The CIA wanted the Salt Pit to be a “host-nation facility,” an Afghan prison with Afghan guards. Its designation as an Afghan facility was intended to give U.S. personnel some insulation from actions taken by Afghan guards inside, a tactic used in secret CIA prisons in other countries, former and current CIA officials said.

The CIA, however, paid the entire cost of maintaining the facility, including the electricity, food and salaries for the guards, who were all vetted by agency personnel. The CIA also decided who would be kept inside, including some “high-value targets,” senior al Qaeda leaders in transit to other, more secure secret CIA prisons.

“We financed it, but it was an Afghan deal,” one U.S. intelligence officer said.

In spring 2004, when the CIA first referred the Salt Pit case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, the department cited the prison’s status as a foreign facility, outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, as one reason for declining to prosecute, U.S. government officials aware of the decision said.

Karzai was Interim President when Rahman died. Either his Administration or the US was in charge of the prison. If the US was in charge, then Rahman’s death can be prosecuted. If Karzai’s Administration was in charge, then he bears legal responsibility for his rescuer’s death.

And I would imagine Hekmatyar is well aware of this dynamic.