Richard Lardner / Associated Press – 2011-09-17 00:51:40
WASHINGTON (September 16, 2011) — US government money spent on contracts in Afghanistan is ending up in the hands of Taliban insurgents that American troops have been fighting for nearly a decade, and it is unlikely the flow can be shut off completely, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday.
Testifying before a House oversight panel, Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend did not provide figures but said US military authorities in Kabul are working to stem the flow by tightening oversight of contracts and vetting prospective vendors more carefully.
The Associated Press reported in August that a special US task force estimated that $360 million in US contracting dollars have been lost to the Taliban, criminals and power brokers with ties to both. US officials said only a small percentage of the total has been garnered by the Taliban and insurgent groups.
Townsend, director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, noted that the $360 million represents a fraction of the $31 billion in active US contracts that the task force reviewed. Still, he said, it is a large sum.
“It’s clear to us some of that money is going to the insurgency and we’ve got do whatever we can to stop that,” Townsend told the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee. “I don’t think we can completely stop it, but we’ve got to do whatever we can to minimize it.”
Overall, the subcommittee’s hearing painted a bleak picture of stemming corruption in Afghanistan.
“It’s just rotten from top to bottom over there,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. “We’re getting fleeced.”
Gary Motsek, deputy assistant secretary of defense for program support, didn’t dispute Lynch’s assessment.
“This is a society that is based on 3,000-plus years of doing things this way,” he said. “We are not going to change it overnight.” Instead of trying to eliminate corruption, US efforts should be focused on controlling it “so that our interests, our dollars, our values and our resources are protected,” Motsek said.
Motsek and Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., sparred briefly over the Pentagon’s decision not to ban the Watan Group, an Afghan-owned company, from doing business with the US after the firm was accused of operating an illicit protection racket while working under an Army transportation contract.
Tierney said the Pentagon let the company “off the hook.” Motsek said an Army official made the call based on the facts he had in front of him. “I just don’t find that satisfactory,” countered Tierney, who detailed his complaints about the decision in a Sept. 13 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Tierney led an investigation last year that concluded that Watan’s owners, Ahmad and Rashid Popal, and Haji Ruhullah, a former Watan employee, bribed local Afghan officials and used heavy weapons prohibited by the contract. They all denied funneling money to the Taliban, Tierney said, but evidence gathered by his staff “raised doubts about those claims.”
Ruhullah was not barred from US contracting. The Army cited his status as a subordinate at Watan and said his inability to speak English meant he could not understand the terms of the contract.
But Townsend said Ruhullah remains under watch by US authorities. “I can’t go into it a whole lot, but Ruhullah is not off our scope,” he said.
Gerald Posner, Ruhullah’s lawyer, said his client “stands ready and willing to help US investigators and I hope they provide him an opportunity to answer any questions they might have.”
On Wednesday, Posner sent a 14-page letter to Panetta in which he calls the congressman’s assertions about Ruhullah “factually inaccurate.” Posner said Ruhullah cooperated fully with Army officials. Ruhullah told them he never personally paid a bribe or a payoff to anyone and never knowingly violated weapons restrictions.
Posner also said Tierney’s investigative staff did not provide a professional and unbiased translator when they met with Ruhullah and the Popals in Dubai in May 2010. As a result, Ruhullah’s statements were “erroneously translated” and then became “the basis for flawed conclusions” in Tierney’s investigation, Posner wrote.
A Watan representative told the AP on Wednesday that the company would issue a statement addressing Tierney’s comments. But by Thursday afternoon, the AP had not received any comment from the company.
Watan, represented by the Washington law firm Venable LLP, went to federal court earlier this year when it appeared the Army would ban them from US contracting. A judge dismissed the suit.
But in court filings, Watan said US military officials were well aware of the steps the company needed to take to ensure trucking convoys bound for US bases arrived without being attacked. In a separate document submitted to the Army in January, Watan’s attorneys said the “so-called bribes” described by congressional investigators were actually legal “facilitation payments” necessary for police protection and security when transporting cargo throughout Afghanistan.
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