Congress is investigating allegations that U.S. tax dollars are being paid to warlords and the Taliban for security on supply routes used to truck food, water, fuel and ammunition to American troops in Afghanistan.
If the allegations are true, then the U.S. would be unintentionally involved in a protection racket and indirectly financing the enemy, Rep. John Tierney, the Massachusetts Democrat leading the inquiry, said Wednesday.
The Obama administration is escalating the U.S. mission in Afghanistan amid concerns that corruption throughout the country is a major roadblock to progress.
Bribes and kickbacks are frequently used to do business there, raising worries among many Democrats on Capitol Hill that the U.S. investment will fall short of stabilizing Afghanistan's shaky government.
Tierney is seeking documents from the Defense Department and companies connected to a $2.1 billion U.S. contract to transport goods and materiel through Pakistan to Bagram Airfield, the U.S. military's main hub in Afghanistan. From Bagram, the supplies are distributed to several hundred smaller camps and bases spread throughout the country.
Tierney said his staff has been told by credible informants that security guards hired by the trucking companies funnel money to the local warlords or the Taliban to ensure the convoys get to their destinations unscathed.
"It's protection money," said Tierney, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee. "Early indications are payments are either made as a lump sum for a period of time, or payment per container."
Multiple layers of subcontractors are often used in these transactions, making it difficult to follow the trail of cash, Tierney added.
The Defense Department had no immediate response to Tierney's investigation.
At a Dec. 2 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the long, rugged supply lines to landlocked Afghanistan through Pakistan's port city of Karachi offer numerous opportunities for fraud and corruption that pad the Taliban's accounts.
But Clinton said the problem is not solely an Afghan one and neither is the solution. "We just have to be honest here about how complex and difficult this problem is," she said.
The arrangement for moving supplies throughout Afghanistan, known as the Host Nation Trucking contract, began in May 2009. There are eight companies handling the work.
Before this umbrella contract was in place, there were far more contractors involved and less oversight, according to John Dawkins, chief executive officer of the Mesopotamia Group in Kabul, one of the current contractors.
But he also said it's no secret that payments are made to ensure safe passage through dangerous patches. Without U.S. or NATO security to guard the convoys and the routes, which is a risky and time intensive task, there's no other option.
"We have to pay certain security companies to get from one place to another place," Dawkins said. "And everybody's interconnected and there's huge money involved. If you don't pay for your security, you're on your own."
Dawkins also downplayed the notion that much of the money flows to the Taliban. "Most of the people are just bandits on the road," he said. "I think you'd have a really hard time defining exactly who the Taliban are."