TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The business aspects of war sometimes look a lot like organized crime, at least that's what investigative journalist Aram Roston has found. In October, he went to Afghanistan and discovered that the trucking and security companies hired by the U.S. to get supplies to military bases often have to pay off the Taliban and other insurgents groups so they're not attacked on the roads. That means some of the money our country is using to fight the insurgents is being funneled to those insurgents.
Roston wrote about this for The Nation magazine with the support of the investigative fund at The Nation Institute. His article has led to a House subcommittee investigation. Roston is a former NBC news producer who covered the Iraq War and Iraqi reconstruction, and he's the author of the 2008 book "The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi."
Aram Roston, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, your article says that a lot of money that the U.S. government is paying for logistics is eventually getting funneled into payments to Taliban and other insurgents. What are those payments going for?
Mr. ARAM ROSTON (Author): Well, the Taliban and other insurgent groups and tribes and different warlords and commanders control the vast regions of the country. Most of the country, in fact, are controlled by the Taliban or insurgents or other tribal groups or warlords.
So for these logistics, these private logistics companies, these trucking companies, to go through, they have to either fight those groups, if those groups won't let them through, or they have to pay them off. And what they've ended up doing most of the time is paying them off.
GROSS: And how much money are we talking about here?
Mr. ROSTON: Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. It's a huge chunk of the security part of the logistics operation. It's - how much money is tough to say. Some people say 10 percent of the entire cost of these logistics operations. Some people say it could be as high as 30 percent of these trucking costs, can basically be - end up in the hands of Taliban.
GROSS: So the irony is pretty obvious here, that the people who we're fighting, the Taliban, are actually profiting on our being there because we're paying them off.
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, it's a huge irony, and it's really worse than irony. It's in some cases just funding the same people you're fighting. So you're enabling the people you're supposed to be fighting.
GROSS: And let's talk a little bit more about why this is happening. You say the companies that ship American military supplies across Afghanistan aren't allowed to arm themselves with any weapon heavier than a rifle. What is this regulation, and why does it exist?
Mr. ROSTON: Well, it exists for a very good reason. It exists so that you don't have wild private security contractors blowing up the countryside. You know, there's got to be restrictions on private security, and in Afghanistan there's more restrictions on private security than there were in, say, Iraq. It's actually technically regulated by the Afghan government, and so legally they're not allowed to shoot anything heavier than an AK-47.
The problem is, of course, they complain, well, we can't fight off these groups with these weapons. These groups have - you know, the Taliban -they're an army. The insurgents, these are guerrilla forces. They've got RPGs and huge, heavy machine guns. The security companies say they can't protect these logistics, trucking convoys without heavier weapons. That's their argument.
But the point is if you allow them to have heavier weapons, they might be, you know, by accident shooting up villagers or causing civilian casualties, and it would be a major problem.
GROSS: Now, your article looks at two levels of companies in Afghanistan. One is the trucking companies that are getting supplies to American bases, and the other is the private security companies that are supposed to be protecting the trucking companies. Who exactly is making the payments to the Taliban and other insurgent groups? Is it directly the trucking companies? Is it directly the security companies, or are these so many layers it's hard to tell who's actually making the payments?
Mr. ROSTON: There are a lot of layers, but really, it's apparently the security companies that do most of the negotiations. It's their job to do the security. So they reach accommodations with whatever power it is that controls the countryside through which they're driving.
And in Afghanistan, somebody always does. Someone controls that section of road. It's not like a toll, but it's understood that one commander will control this section of road, and that's the one who has to be paid. And the security company is usually the one that facilitates that, and they have to do it whether they do it through tribal connections, whether they do it through other connections. It's got to be done or they'll get attacked.
In some cases, too, they say it's more like extortion than pure payoffs. In other words, the understanding is you pay them or they'll attack you.
GROSS: Why don't we do airlifts and kind of circumvent the warlords and Taliban and insurgents who control the roads in Afghanistan?
Mr. ROSTON: I mean, the quantities we're talking about are tremendous. The quantity of supplies are huge. There just isn't enough helicopters and landing strips and all that to accommodate it.
Even now, apparently, you know, airlift capability is stretched a little thin in terms of getting special operations forces where they need to go and all that stuff. So if you end up demanding everything like toilet paper, uniforms, ammunition, you know, Humvees and MRAPs, those big mine-resistant vehicles, if you insisted on airlifting them, it would be basically unfeasible. So they have to truck it. It's - trucking is traditionally the way you transport things in Afghanistan.
GROSS: You know, to be a trucker in Afghanistan must be really wild. I mean, there is insurgents all over. Maybe you pay them off, maybe you haven't, but it's pretty dangerous. What's it like to drive a truck?
Mr. ROSTON: It's really hairy. I mean, you can see - when you're in Bagram Airbase and such - and on the road anywhere, you can see these convoys going back and forth. They're brave people and they're really great truck drivers. They decorate their trucks. They elaborate - you know, sort of with these posters and such and paintings and stuff, and then they - but they treat their trucks really well.
They know their business like nobody else, and there's no - most of Afghanistan, there's no roads, really. The roads aren't what you'd consider roads. Some roads exist now, and they've been built better than they were, but these people have to operate - they're been operating this way for a long time. They're good at doing it, but large numbers of people get killed in this field a lot.
If they're attacked or whatever happens, if a truck breaks down, the convoy, I'm told, just leaves them. They just go on. I've seen also the way deals get done. I mean, I was just - I was meeting people in a restaurant, and you know, the way they were just talking about how you do these trucking deals, they would sort of just argue about it. You know, I can get you 100 trucks at such and such. It's all just people talking as opposed to some - business the way you think about it here these days, with bids going back and forth and elaborate documents. It's just sort of word of mouth.
GROSS: Now, have you gotten anybody from the security companies in Afghanistan or anybody from the American military to say on the record that what you say is being done is actually being done, that money from the Defense Department is eventually getting funneled to Taliban and insurgents?
Mr. ROSTON: Almost everybody wanted their name not to be used. One guy did let me use his name. He worked for one company, and he's in the article, in The Nation article, and he describes how it happened, and he said, I'm quoting here: If you ask me not to pay the insurgents, the risks of my being attacked increase exponentially.
GROSS: And what about the military? Did you talk to people in the military, and what did they have to say?
Mr. ROSTON: The military turns a blind eye to a certain degree. Most of them seem to know that this is happening. On the record I quoted one colonel, who is in Wardak Province, and he said: I know it is what it is. But he said as an American soldier, it repulses him, I think was the word he used. But he said he knows it's happening, and he knows it is what it is. It's necessary because the resources are spread so thin.
But you know, he pointed out the ultimate fact here. Americans and Afghans hate the idea that this is happening, but they see it as a necessary evil. If you even look at the military's response to me in the article, in that article, one of the things that the military spokesman in the end said was, well, we don't have that much visibility into the relationship between these prime contractors and their subcontractors, or the subcontractors and other people.
And that's kind of - well, it's kind of like saying we don't know where the money's going after it goes to the prime contractors, and it's kind of like saying we don't really look into it that deeply. And that's the real problem.
GROSS: So you're saying the security companies subcontract to other companies, and it might be the subcontractors who are actually making the payments to the insurgents.
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, sure, that's the way it is. It's often subcontractors, and security companies, by the way, there, are tough sometimes to define. As one big security company official told me, in Afghanistan every warlord has his own security company. So somebody will call his militia a security company.
GROSS: I see. So you could be hiring a security company that's really like a warlord's private militia.
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, and I describe one guy in the article, Commander Rahoula(ph), who I say controls this long stretch of road between Kabul and Kandahar, which is a really key piece of road because that's where everything has to go to get south and west to where the fighting is.
But no one on the American side really knows much of anything about him. Most of them don't even know he exists. Most American military people don't even know he exists, and yet he's crucial to the war zone in this way because he's the escort commander who takes all these supplies through.
GROSS: Is he a warlord?
Mr. ROSTON: He - it's - you know, warlord's such a term of art. Some people say it's fair to call him a warlord in that he controls his own group of men who are accountable to nobody but him, it seems. Is he really a warlord? It's such a tough term to define. He's what they call a commander there. You know, it's a more common term.
GROSS: Right, commander meaning he has his own militia?
Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, commander meaning he fights. He's not in the U.S. - I mean, he's not in the Afghan military or in the Afghan military structure at all. He's private. Before he allied himself with this company, he was freelance. So it's more like the old-fashioned term, and warlord's just a little too - I'm not sure he reaches the status of a warlord, if that makes sense.
You know, how big a force does one need to be a warlord? I'm not trying to hedge here, but do you see what I mean? In Afghanistan, things are so complex. He's a fighter, and he does - his loyalties are to his employer right now and to the people who pay him to get those trucks through.
GROSS: My guest is investigative reporter Aram Roston. His article, "How the U.S. Funds the Taliban," was published in The Nation. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is investigative reporter Aram Roston. We're talking about his reporting on how trucking and security companies contracted by the U.S. in Afghanistan are often forced to pay off the Taliban and other insurgents who control the roads.
Now, one of the companies that you focused on in your article is a company called Watan Risk Management. What does this company do, and what area does it work in?
Mr. ROSTON: To me they're fascinating. They're run - basically owned by two brothers, the Popal brothers. There's Ahmad Rateb Popal and his brother Rashid Popal. I describe a little bit about their backgrounds, and they're very intriguing, very apparently charismatic men. They both lived in America at some point. Ahmad Rateb Popal, who is the chairman of the company, he actually did almost 10 years in federal prison in the U.S. for a drug offense, from 1989 to 1997. So...
GROSS: This is like importing heroin? Was that it?
Mr. ROSTON: It was a heroin charge, exactly. His brother was also convicted but didn't do any time. Later, Ahmad Rateb Popal was sort of seen visibly during the American bombardment and the initial stages of the Afghan war because he was the interpreter for the Taliban's ambassador in Pakistan, and at that point he had a huge beard.
He's a very interesting guy. He's got one eye patch. One of his arms is missing, most of his - another of his hand is missing, and that's because of injuries sustained during the war against the Soviets.
After that, he reappeared at Watan Group, and Watan is now this really influential, really important company, and he's a businessman, and what I say is that these two brothers run Watan Risk Management, and I say it's one of the most important security companies in Afghanistan because it controls that road from Kabul all the way down, you know, to Kandahar and Ghazni, and this is where all the American supplies need to get if they're going to get to those forward operating bases and those combat outposts.
And Watan Risk, it's a licensed security company, but because it hires this commander, it's able to basically get these convoys through, and what I say is virtually every trucking company has to use them. They have to use that company along that stretch of road.
Since the article, Ahmad Rateb Popal, he wrote a letter to The Nation. He explained - he said, you know, he was convicted of the drug offense, but he said it was a cultural misunderstanding, and he said he represented - he helped the Taliban as an interpreter but mainly because he was a friend of theirs rather than because he was in any way a Taliban himself.
And he said - he admits, in a way, that a lot of companies do pay off the Taliban, maybe this is a problem. He says his company doesn't. He says his company fights, and he says Watan Risk Management loses 50 people a month in fighting to secure these American supply lines, which is a huge number of people.
I should point out one more thing about the Popals that may not be insignificant. They're cousins to the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.
GROSS: And what do you think is the significance of that?
Mr. ROSTON: Well, just that they are from an influential tribe. You know, it's unclear that they have that much of a connection with the president, but what is clear is everybody in Afghanistan knows that. So one can try to imagine how important that is when you're doing business there. To be a cousin of the president is good.
GROSS: So if you stand back and look at this company, Watan Risk Management, and you see the background of the brothers who own it, their connections to President Karzai, they say they don't pay off insurgents, you wonder if they do. So what's the moral of this story? What does it say about how things are working in the private security industry that is protecting trucks bringing American supplies?
Mr. ROSTON: To me, what it says is this. The big picture is in the beginning - during an invasion or the first months of something, it's understandable if you don't know exactly where all the money's going, you know, who the security companies are, where you're buying your food, your supplies and all that stuff.
But eight years in there should be accountability, and people should know everything about where the American funds are going, because it's not a new war. There should be a process in place. There should be visibility. People have to know. There's a lack of that. People simply don't - the American military in many cases isn't aware of how the process works.
If they are aware, they're turning a blind eye to it. That I think is the main moral of the story. The other part that I think is really key is there's this network of insiders whose business prospects have blossomed over the years because whether it's their connections or because they know how to do business with the right people, a lot of people are getting rich off the Afghan War.
GROSS: What reaction have you gotten to the story from the military and from Congress?
Mr. ROSTON: Congress has started an investigation into this. A subcommittee in the House began a preliminary inquiry, and they said they found enough evidence to find out that this - that it merits a full investigation, and they've sent out letters to the trucking companies that I named and some others. They sent out a letter to the military, and they say they're going to pursue it as hard as they can.
How quickly it'll happen, who knows, but they're trying. The American military, I don't know. Everything is so divided in terms of how contracting works. Oversight is unclear, and it's been that way in Afghanistan. I know there are a lot of efforts to fix up the holes in oversight to send more investigators and auditors there, but it's been such a dilemma over there to get that done.
And there's been massive - a lot of people, a lot of American military people really were glad I did the story. They really are - they're upset by this. Nobody wants to be doing, wants to be funding the very enemy that they're fighting.
GROSS: Now, we've been talking about the article that you wrote for The Nation called "How the U.S. Funds the Taliban." You went to Afghanistan looking for how insiders are making money on the war, and you've written about that as well. You have an article called "An Afghan Lobby Scam," and I'd like to talk to you about that, and you know, in that you look at how some insiders are making money off the war and trying to make more money. You in that article focus on one particular company called NCL Security Services. Just tell us what the company is. Let's start there.
Mr. ROSTON: NCL is a company that was founded by the son of the Afghan defense minister, General Rahim Wardak(ph), and the son's name is Hamid Wardak(ph), and he's a brilliant young American-Afghan who lives in the D.C. area, and he started this company to do contracting in Afghanistan.
GROSS: So what kind of contracts has NCL gotten from the U.S. military?
Mr. ROSTON: They've gotten contracts to protect bases there, Afghan National Army bases, and a Special Forces base there too. And that's, again, one of the peculiarities of recent wars. You mentioned the way that trucking is privatized, but also, you know, perimeter security of government bases is now contracted out to private companies.
In Afghanistan, they give it to local Afghan companies, and his company won a couple of these, where they provide sort of armed security guards to protect military installations, to protect the very military that's doing the fighting.
So it's intriguing, but then he won part of a contract called host-nation trucking, this host-nation trucking company contract that I was writing about. He was one of six companies that won.
At first - it was a pretty big contract. It was huge, in fact. It was a total of $360 million split between these six companies. But then after the first surge of 2009 - if you remember, there was a surge of troops -the U.S. military, over the summer, they increased this contract tremendously to over $2 billion. So each of these companies, suddenly they got, you know, a massive amount of money. I mean, his share of it, or NCL's share of it, the defense minister's son's company, their share of it would be about $360 million over two years. That's a huge contract - because the U.S. military suddenly realized it had more of a requirement for trucking than it thought a few months earlier.
GROSS: Aram Roston will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "How the U.S. Pays the Taliban," was published in The Nation. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with investigative reporter Aram Roston. We've been talking about his article in The Nation called "How the U.S. Pays the Taliban." It's about how the trucking and security companies in Afghanistan that are contracted by the U.S. to deliver supplies are often forced to pay off the Taliban, who control the roads. So millions of U.S. dollars are going to the people we're fighting. When we left off, we were talking about one of the companies that received a major contract from the U.S. from trucking called NCL Holdings.
It's run by Hamed Wardak, whose father is the defense minister of Afghanistan. Roston says the company's most recent contract was for $360 million over two years.
Now, one of the things you're looking into with NCL Security Services is their relationship to a lobbying group that was recently created, they opposed the deadline that President Obama has set for taking troops out of Afghanistan. And what is the question you are raising about this lobby group?
Mr. ROSTON: The issue was you've got a defense contractor - the executive of a defense contract and that executive is basically the son of the defense minister of Afghanistan. But he becomes more than a defense contractor. He becomes an advocate for what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan. He becomes a proponent of particular things in Afghanistan. And he forms a group called the Campaign for a U.S.-Afghan Partnership. And that campaign pushes for more involvement in Afghanistan and sort of different engagements and it pushes to support the Afghan National Army, which is basically overseen by this fellow's -his father, General Rahim Wardak, who runs the Ministry of Defense.
What intrigued me was I obtained a document from a law firm. The law firm and lobbying firm is called Patton Boggs. It's one of the biggest lobbying firms in Washington, if not the biggest. It wrote a memo to him, to Hamed Wardak, the head of NCL and the son of the Afghan defense minister, and it was a confidential document, but I obtained it, and it basically laid out a plan for how it could achieve his foreign policy objectives, which apparently were, you know, a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and some other things, including finding an alternate candidate to lead Afghanistan.
But one of the first things that really intrigued me was that the lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, said they recommended, they said, as a first step, that they set up a coalition, a group. They called it a face - to be the face of their campaign. And that group, they said, would basically then get the message across, is that group, they said, would be the client of Patton Boggs, okay? They wrote this memo on January 30th of 2009, about 10 days after President Obama's inauguration, when people were really trying to figure out what is Obama going to do in Afghanistan.
So they wrote this memo to Hamed Wardak. And that really intrigued me and I showed it to people and what they were saying is this is basically a road map for how to create a fund group that would basically pretend to be a lobbying group, a grassroots type of campaign, but really served the interests of the guy who hired the law firm, Hamed Wardak.
GROSS: Hamed Wardak says that the group has 3,000 members, and you're saying that a group that appears to be this grassroots lobbying group representing Afghan-Americans is really a front group for the special interests of one man or one company or other companies that are - that have similar interests and that interest is in American long-term commitment in Afghanistan, because that will mean the American military will continue to pay this group and other groups like it.
Mr. ROSTON: That would make sense. But really, you know, ideologies are tough to obviously parse out. You know, often you'll find people - their ideology coincides with whatever helps them financially, right? Or their business tends to work in line of their ideology. So I'm not saying, oh, Hamed Wardak believes this just because he's profiting from it. But what I am saying is the evidence is there that this group, which represents itself as sort of a group of, you know, concerned Afghan-Americans and so on, was set up by one particular high-paid lobbying firm in Washington - Patton Boggs is a law firm in Washington - basically for Hamed Wardak.
GROSS: So what are the implications of that? What does that mean? Does that - do you think that that means that they should not have any influence on Capitol Hill or that they should be taken less seriously...
Mr. ROSTON: No, no, no.
GROSS: ...because they were created by a law firm as opposed to - I mean they were created by a law firm - the law firm suggested the idea, but the law firm was hired by Wardak to come up with ideas like this.
Mr. ROSTON: Right. Let me just...
GROSS: Basically hired them in the first place, yeah.
Mr. ROSTON: Exactly. If I can go through, well, what do I think, I think it's all fine. I just think it's good to know. And one official I met, one legislative aide said, you know, he met with Hamed Wardak and he was introduced to Hamed Wardak by Patton Boggs and the thing was he didn't know that Hamed Wardak was a defense contractor. He just knew he was -he knew he was the defense minister's son, but when he was introduced to him as a representative of a group, CUSAP, he didn't know he was a defense contractor. And that is important to know.
But if I could - I spell in this story, I think, how it worked. And I just - what really intrigued me was it's almost - it provides insight into how Washington works perhaps, and you normally don't get this - you don't get this kind of evidence of how these lobbying groups may be set up. That's what intrigued me, because it's a - the first step in achieving your objectives is to set up a group that will be a face of the campaign. That's what Patton Boggs said in the memo. So then maybe six days or so after they wrote that memo, Patton Boggs' lawyers went to incorporate it, the Campaign for U.S. and Afghanistan. They set up the group.
And then another - maybe another week later or so that group then became Patton Boggs' client. Which I just found interesting and fascinating because it sort of shows how - maybe how money flows in Washington, and the real thing I thought was interesting is it's one thing to hire a lobbying firm to get, say, you know, a provision in a bill or an earmark for your company or something like that, but to try to affect the entire foreign policy of the United States is a different ball game; that's really - it's a big deal and it's interesting.
GROSS: Who are the people on the board, anybody significant?
Mr. ROSTON: Well, that was intriguing. One of the most significant guys was Milt Bearden. Milt Bearden is a legendary former CIA official who worked in Pakistan on the campaign against the Soviets during those days. He was, you know, he sort of featured in "Charlie Wilson's War." You can find a bit about him. He also wrote a book himself with a New York Times writer, James Risen, about the whole Soviet War and about Afghanistan. So he is a very important figure in Washington on the Afghan issue. He's a friend of Richard Holbrook. He has the ear of lot of generals, because he had lot of insight into Afghanistan.
And everybody tells he's got a lot of integrity, very interesting guy. He is on the board of - or was on the board - of CUSAP, the Campaign for U.S.-Afghan Partnership. And he was also on the advisory board of NCL Holdings. I say was because now that my stories have come out, his name has disappeared from their Web sites. I don't know what that really means because he's not returning my phone calls. But it's interesting because Milt Bearden - it sort of gets into the sort of how things work. Milt Bearden, as I mentioned, was in the CIA during the �80s and he helped supply the Mujahideen.
One of his contacts there was Rahim Wardak, who was a Mujahideen leader at that point. And he helped get the American supplies and such into Afghanistan from Pakistan. And now, of course, Rahim Wardak is the defense minister of Afghanistan. So he's worked with the Americans before. And then it was intriguing to me that Milt Bearden was working with his son, with Rahim Wardak's son, on these various efforts.
GROSS: Is there a next step in the stories that you're following?
Mr. ROSTON: I think so. I think it needs more work. I mean I think that we need to really understand who these payments are going to. Just because we don't know who these commanders are - Afghans know who these commanders are. We can learn. I mean, we - I think not just, you know, myself a reporter, but others, I think the American military, if it wanted to, could try to unravel where the money's going. And somehow - I mean, you can try to delineate which commanders, what are their names, what are their cell phone numbers, how much money they're collecting per truck. I try to describe some of that in the article.
I try to describe how it works. I name one commander, but there were others, and I think that's what the next step has to be, because it's such an important part of these things. We - the U.S. military has tried to shut down the funding for the Taliban, but do not look at this part of it is to really, you know, miss this - create this huge gap, this huge hole where they're getting money.
And I note again, I'm not the only person saying this, you know. There are - it's not, as I put it in the article, American military officials talk about it. And a top Afghan security official discussed it. It's really sort of not in dispute that it's happening, but just more detail needs to be obtained about it.
GROSS: Aram Roston, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ROSTON: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Aram Roston's articles, "How the U.S. Pays the Taliban" and "An Afghan Lobby Scam," were published in The Nation.