Some international contractors, hired by the United States to build roads and other large construction projects in Afghanistan, are paying Taliban insurgents not to attack them and to act as their security guards, according to allegations filed with the Pentagon and other U.S. investigative agencies.
The allegations are part of widening U.S. probes into deals between contractors paid by the U.S. government and the Taliban insurgents against whom American troops are fighting a bloody war.
Among the allegations are accusations by an American security contractor based in eastern Afghanistan that the Taliban are being paid off not to attack certain projects, and the money is being used to buy weapons and explosives.
The construction contractors "get ahold of the local Taliban commander, ask how much will it cost us to get this work done and have you not mess with us, and by the way we'll hire you to do the security,'' the American security contractor told me recently in Gardez, a major city in eastern Afghanistan.
The security contractor asked not to be identified by name to protect himself.
"If I disappear, you guys will have a starting place for an investigation,'' he wrote in an e-mail to investigators for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, an independent investigative agency chartered by Congress.
That agency turned the allegations over to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, an office within the Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General. A senior official at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service did not respond to a request about whether an investigation into the allegations is under way. Gary M. Comerford, a spokesman for DCIS and the Pentagon Inspector General, said the agency does not normally acknowledge when it undertakes an investigation.
If the allegations of payoffs are borne out, they would help explain how the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan have been able to wage a costly war against U.S. troops. Taliban fighters are paid more than Afghan police, in most cases, and the explosives and hardware used in roadside bombs and suicide vests are costly to procure, transport and deploy, U.S. officials said.
Since 2001, the United States has spent $39 billion on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, including work on roads, bridges, dams and power plants. Most of the work is done by large international corporations which, in turn, contract with other international and even local companies. It is not clear in these complex contracts who holds responsibility for ensuring security at work sites.
Despite the massive American presence in Afghanistan of both military and civilian personnel, U.S. officials acknowledge there is insufficient scrutiny of the contractors and the costs they claim for their work, including for security.
In many cases, it is common for contractors on U.S.-funded projects to hire local Afghans for security work. But there are too few inspectors to check up on where the money really goes.
"The problem is their inspectors can't get out to see the [work] sites because of security. There's so much corruption and nobody to investigate it,'' the security contractor said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds many of the development projects in Afghanistan. Its own inspector general, Donald Gambatesa, told the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting last spring that "the lack of security imposes significant constraints on USAID's ability to monitor its programs.''
USAID officials, he said, "are unable to make routine site visits, and their official counterparts are often reluctant to be seen meeting with Americans.''
The Commission on Wartime Contracting is an independent, bipartisan group set up by Congress to monitor the growing number of U.S.-funded contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a hearing on Friday in Washington, the commission was told by Kenneth P. Moorefield, assistant Defense Department inspector general for Southwest Asia, that the problem persists and that the Pentagon is short of funds and auditors to keep an eye on contracts.
The contract auditors have "attempted to get ahead of the curve -- there's a need to dig out of a hole,'' he said, but added: "There's a constant struggle over limited resources.''
Separate from allegations about the Taliban and construction security, a House panel last week broadened its investigation into charges that private contractors paid off Taliban insurgents not to attack truck convoys carrying war materiel through Pakistan and into Afghanistan.
"Serious allegations have been brought to the subcommittee's attention that private security providers for U.S. transportation contractors in Afghanistan are regularly paying local warlords and the Taliban for security,'' said Rep. John F. Tierney,
a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee.
"If shown to be true, it would mean that the United States is unintentionally engaged in a vast protection racket and, as such, may be indirectly funding the very insurgents we are trying to fight,'' Tierney said.
Tierney's investigators have asked for Pentagon documents relating to a $2.2 billion contract with several trucking companies to carry goods into Afghanistan.
The Taliban-related allegation in eastern Afghanistan involves construction on a strategic road between Gardez and Khost, a route that runs over high mountains and directly through territory dominated by the Haqqani Taliban, one of the most ruthless of several Taliban subgroups.
The security contractor alleged that the Haqqani network, which provides foreign fighters from Pakistan for the security work on the roads, is paid tens of thousands of dollars in what amounts to a protection racket.
The Haqqani network is responsible for IEDs and attacks that have killed dozens of American troops and hundreds of Afghan civilians, according to senior U.S. commanders.
"Haqqani has poured money into Khost,'' Col. Michael Howard, who commands a brigade combat team in the region, told me this fall. "Those IEDs cost a ton of money, those suicide vests, the vehicle-borne IEDs cost thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.''
The security contractor said he had stumbled across the alleged contractor payments to the Taliban, and when he complained to company officials that "the U.S. is not in the business of giving our enemy money to fight us,'' was told that hiring the Taliban was "a necessary evil.''
The security contractor also said the Taliban are paid to tip off trucking contractors when an attack is planned on a convoy, but that the information is not passed on to the U.S. military, whose convoys are hit regularly by IEDs.
"I have yet to find a security company that doesn't rely on payoffs to the Taliban,'' the contractor said.