WASHINGTON — Private security contractors protecting the convoys that supply U.S. military bases in Afghanistan are paying millions of dollars a week in "passage bribes" to the Taliban and other insurgent groups to travel along Afghan roads, a congressional investigation released Monday has found.
The payments, which are reimbursed by the U.S. government, help fund the very enemy the U.S. is attempting to defeat and renew questions about the U.S. dependence on private contractors, who outnumber American troops in Afghanistan, 130,000 to 93,000.
The report's author called the findings of the six-month investigation "sobering and shocking."
"This arrangement has fueled a vast protection racket run by shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others," wrote Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., the chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. "Not only does the system run afoul of the (Defense) Department's own rules and regulations mandated by Congress, it also appears to risk undermining the U.S. strategy for achieving its goals in Afghanistan."
Concerns over whether U.S. contracting is fueling Afghanistan's rampant corruption have existed for years, but only earlier this month did Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, established a task force in Afghanistan to investigate the effects.
Maj. John Redfield, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan, said, "We take these accusations seriously."
The subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing into its investigation Tuesday.
Nearly every company listed in the report is associated with senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, the minister of defense, a provincial governor and a senior Afghan army official.
One of those companies, Host Nation Trucking, transports about 70 percent of all goods to U.S. troops stationed at 200 bases and combat outposts throughout Afghanistan, running 6,000 to 8,000 delivery missions a month. The $2.16 billion contract called on HNT truckers to provide their own security, but didn't call for any oversight into how HNT and other companies did that.
The investigation found that HNT has contracted with seven other companies to carry the cargo, but only one of those actually owns trucks. The others hire local Afghans, whose trucks sometimes bear the U.S. flag.
The truckers pay as much as $1,500 a truck to "nearly every Afghan governor, police chief and local military unit whose territory the company passed," en route to a U.S. base, according to the 79-page report.
The report interviewed a major who sat in on a May 2009 meeting between the military and an HNT contractor about goods transported in Paktika province. The contractor complained that he was paying $150,000 a month to get supplies to Forward Operating Base Sharana.
Tierney said he was unable to determine how much was spent on such payments, but he said it could reach millions a week.
The report alleges that neither the contactors nor the military know specifically how the trucks arrive safely at bases when many of the country's roads are regular targets of Taliban attacks.
The report quoted e-mails, PowerPoint presentations and meeting notes of HNT officials alerting local military commanders to the problem but the report found the military did little in response.
"The Department of Defense has been largely blind to potential strategic consequences of its supply chain contingency contracting. U.S. military logisticians have little visibility into what happens to their trucks on the road and virtually no understanding of how security is actually provided," the report found.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)
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