Matthieu Aikins / The New Yorker – 2016-03-23 01:05:26
The Bidding War
How a young Afghan military contractor became spectacularly rich
Matthieu Aikins / The New Yorker
(March 7, 2016 Issue) — America’s war in Afghanistan, which is now in its fifteenth year, presents a mystery: how could so much money, power, and good will have achieved so little? Congress has appropriated almost eight hundred billion dollars for military operations in Afghanistan; a hundred and thirteen billion has gone to reconstruction, more than was spent on the Marshall Plan, in postwar Europe.
General David Petraeus, a principal architect of US counterinsurgency strategy, encouraged the practice of pumping money into the economy of Afghanistan, where the per-capita GDP at the time of the invasion was around a hundred and twenty dollars.
He believed that money had helped buy peace during his command of American forces in Iraq. “Employ money as a weapons system,” Petraeus wrote in 2008. “Money can be ‘ammunition.’ ”
The result was a war waged as much by for-profit companies as by the military. Political debate in Washington has focused on the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan and the losses that they have sustained.
To minimize casualties, the military outsourced any task that it could: maintenance, cooking and laundry, overland logistics, even security. Since 2007, there have regularly been more contractors than US forces in Afghanistan; today, they outnumber them three to one.
One result has been forms of corruption so extreme that the military has, in some cases, funded its own enemy. When a House committee investigated the trucking system that supplied American forces, it found that the system had “fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others.”
Its report concluded that “protection payments for safe passage are a significant potential source of funding for the Taliban.” The system risked “undermining the US strategy for achieving its goals in Afghanistan.”
The system has also made a few individuals very rich. Hikmatullah Shadman, an Afghan trucking-company owner, earned more than a hundred and sixty million dollars while contracting for the United States military; for the past three years, he has been battling to save much of his fortune in a federal court in Washington, D.C.
In United States of America v. Sum of $70,990,605, et al., the Justice Department has accused Hikmat, as he’s known, of bribing contractors and soldiers to award him contracts.
Hikmat has maintained his innocence, even as eight soldiers have pleaded guilty in related criminal cases. Several members of the Special Forces who have not been accused of wrongdoing have defended him. In a deposition, Major Jerry (Rusty) Bradley, a veteran Special Forces officer, said, “The only way to right a wrong of this magnitude is to be willing to draw your sword and defend everything that you believe in.”
I first met Hikmat in June, 2014, at his office in downtown Kabul, on a main road crowded with taxis and venders hawking stewed chickpeas. The compound once belonged to Ahmad Zahir, a famous pop singer of the nineteen-seventies. We sat in a living room that, with its low ceiling, floral wall print, and paper lanterns, resembled a California den from that period.
Hikmat, who is in his late twenties, looks disarmingly young and gentle. Slim, with a high brow that he often furrows, he countered the charges against him in grave, deliberate English.
“The people who did this investigation were sitting in air-conditioned rooms,” he told me. “They don’t know what was happening in the field.” He offered to explain how he had made his fortune. “I was part of the Special Forces family,” he said. “I was trained by them.
* * *
Before the Americans came, Hikmat lived with his father, a schoolteacher; his mother; and five siblings in a four-room mud-walled house in one of the oldest parts of Kandahar City, in southern Afghanistan. In the summer of 2001, Hikmat was fourteen years old, and he and his friends chafed at the narrowness of life under the Taliban.
No one had a telephone, televisions were banned, and there was rarely any electricity. Sometimes, Hikmat recalled, the Taliban would round up the schoolboys and take them to see executions at the city’s soccer stadium. “There was a black umbrella on top of us,” he said. “We were not connected to the world.”
Eager for a glimpse of life outside Afghanistan, Hikmat would watch movies at the house of a Hindu friend, on a tiny, illicit television with the volume turned low and the blinds pulled down. They liked Bollywood dramas and Hollywood action films, and would try out the foreign-sounding names: Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Rambo.
At home, in the evenings, Hikmat’s father listened to the BBC’s Pashto service while taking notes on world events in a diary. “My father was always studying at night,” Hikmat said. “He was always working.”
On September 11, 2001, Hikmat came home to find his parents sitting by the radio, stunned by the news from New York. Like many Afghans, they didn’t understand why their country was said to be responsible, but it soon became clear that the Americans would attack. Hikmat imagined that, like the action heroes in his films, they would come on foot, in a spray of bullets. He was so excited, he said, that he sneaked out and wrote in chalk on the wall of a mosque, “Long live Bush.”
The Americans came in B-52s instead, raining bombs on the Taliban and the Arab foreign fighters who had become their allies. Hikmat and his family fled across the border to Karachi, in Pakistan. Kabul fell in November, but Kandahar held out until December 7th, when a convoy of Afghan militiamen, led by the warlord Gul Agha Sherzai, entered the city, accompanied by C.I.A. advisers and US Special Forces. Hikmat’s family rushed back to Kandahar.
The next day, residents celebrated and played music in the streets. For the first time in years, videocassettes were sold openly. When a convoy of Special Forces drove through town, with soldiers as muscled and heavily armed as Rambo, Hikmat joined the crowd that was walking alongside them, waving and smiling.
On the radio, the country’s new leader, forty-three-year-old Hamid Karzai, a former diplomat, promised a bright future of peace and development; after decades of war and isolation, the economy was reviving in Kandahar.
But, that winter, Hikmat’s father fell ill with stomach cancer, and died soon afterward. To support his mother and sisters, Hikmat tended a French-fry and juice stand. In June, 2002, he found work cleaning and making repairs at a Special Forces base that the Americans had set up at Kandahar’s airport.
Sami Ghairatmal, a childhood friend, told me that Hikmat was always driven to improve himself. “He studied more than us,” he said. “He learned good and fluent English.”
After the project at the base ended, a friend of Hikmat’s who was working as a security guard for the US military asked Hikmat to see him about another job. Borrowing his brother’s motorcycle, Hikmat drove out to the former compound of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in the hills north of the city.
Both the C.I.A. and the Special Forces had set up at the compound, which they called Camp Gecko, after the noisy lizards that lived there. The roof was destroyed, but workers were putting up new buildings. Eventually, the complex had a cafeteria with a fireplace, a fountain with catfish, and a swimming pool.
Hikmat’s friend took him to meet Bryan Myers, a twenty-two-year-old engineering sergeant who had just arrived for his first tour in Afghanistan with the Desert Eagles, a battalion of the 3rd Special Forces Group, which deployed frequently to Kandahar in the course of the war.
Myers was a barrel-chested man who, like most Green Berets, as the Special Forces are known, had a beard that distinguished him from the clean-shaven regular troops. He later wrote an account of his meeting with Hikmat, which Hikmat’s lawyers submitted in court:
“How old are you, kid?”
“I am 16, about, sir.”
“Yeah no, that’s not going to happen. Sorry but there is no way. Tony, I am sorry but we can’t hire a kid, it’s too dangerous and he doesn’t bring anything to the table.”
As Hikmat turned to go, Myers mentioned that a rucksack and some gun covers needed repairing; Hikmat offered to do it. His mother sewed up the rucksack, and when he declined payment Myers and the team, impressed by his honesty, decided to take him on:
“Hik, your English is pretty good. You know what we do here right?”
“Of course, you are the bearded ones, everybody knows what you do. That is why I want to work with you.”
Laughing, I just put my hand on his shoulder and respond “Welcome aboard.”
Hikmat spent the next three years as an interpreter, living and fighting alongside Myers and other Green Berets. He earned up to fifteen hundred dollars a month, twenty times the salary of an Afghan police officer. “In the eyes of Hikmatullah, the bearded ones were sent upon him as an answer to many of [his] prayers,” Myers wrote.
The Special Forces, who are known as “quiet professionals,” focus less on commando raids — the hallmark of other Ã©lite units, such as the Delta Force and the Navy SEALs — than on training and fighting with allied local forces.
During the invasion, they had embedded with Afghan warlords and their militias, and afterward they were left behind to hunt the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda across Afghanistan’s remote mountains and deserts.
“We were inherently different,” Rusty Bradley, who served as an officer with the Desert Eagles, wrote in “Lions of Kandahar,” a 2011 memoir. “We ate, slept, lived, and breathed with the Afghan people as if we had done so all our lives, immersing ourselves in their language and culture.” Bradley deployed to Kandahar eight times, eventually learning rudimentary Pashto.
After Myers rotated back to the US, Hikmat worked for Bradley’s team, and the two grew close. He compared Bradley, who weighed two hundred and thirty pounds, to Sylvester Stallone; Bradley has credited Hikmat with saving his life by putting himself between Bradley and an armed insurgent. “I wasn’t just an interpreter,” Hikmat told me.
By 2006, the American military was focussed mostly on Iraq, and the Taliban had retaken much of the countryside in southern Afghanistan. That summer, Bradley and Myers redeployed with the Desert Eagles to Kandahar. In Operation Medusa, one of the largest battles of the war, US and Canadian troops attacked Taliban fighters west of the city with tanks, artillery, and airpower. “It looked like a monster had stomped through the valley, leaving skeletons of compounds smoldering and tops of trees jagged and twisted,” Bradley wrote.
Hikmat’s mother, fearing for his safety, pleaded with him to stop working as an interpreter. Three interpreters in Kandahar had recently been captured and beheaded by the Taliban. “I lied to my mom,” he said, telling her that he had stayed on the base during the operation. He had started a side business selling fruit and soft drinks to the base, and that winter he quit his job as an interpreter in order to work on the business full time.
Hikmat told me that a sergeant major at the Special Forces headquarters helped him register it at the main US base, known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF. On February 25, 2007, Hikmat signed a “blanket purchase agreement” with the US military, an open-ended contract for trucking services. He started with a single rented truck.
* * *
Hikmat’s entry into the trucking business brought him into competition with some of Kandahar’s most powerful men. Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord who had retaken the province with the help of the C.I.A. and Special Forces, had been the governor; his brother Abdul Raziq was a general in the Afghan Army, in charge of the airport.
The Sherzais also controlled lucrative contracts to supply gravel to the American base, and Raziq’s company, Sherzai Construction and Supply, provided trucks to the Americans. “We’ve had a friendship since 2001,” Raziq told me in his office on KAF. He had a framed photograph on his desk of himself with General John Campbell, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan. “From that time, I’m their partner.”
To many Afghans, warlords like the Sherzais were scarcely more legitimate than the Taliban. After the Communist government fell, in 1992, Gul Agha and his men had taken part in the civil war that pillaged Kandahar. Now, “with US dollars,” Governor Sherzai “had constituted his own private militia,” Sarah Chayes, a journalist turned aid worker, writes, in “The Punishment of Virtue,” her 2006 account of life in Kandahar.
But the Americans saw the political landscape in Afghanistan through the dichotomies of the war on terror, and in Kandahar they relied on the Sherzais to help identify the enemy. “Before long, the US forces were helplessly wrapped inside the [Sherzais’] friendly bear hug,” Chayes continues.
Bradley, who referred to the Taliban as “savages,” wrote, “Every day was like September 12, 2001.” Raids by US Special Operations Forces, in conjunction with the Sherzais, compelled former Taliban leaders to move to Pakistan, where they began to revive the insurgency.
As an interpreter, Hikmat had often been in meetings with the Sherzais, though they hardly noticed him in those days. “We wouldn’t even greet him, I remember,” Khalid Pashtoon, a member of the Afghan parliament who was then an aide to Gul Agha Sherzai, said. Hikmat told me that he understood why the Americans aligned themselves with people like the Sherzais against the Taliban. “There is bad and worse,” he said. “You would choose bad.”
Now he was their rival in a more and more lucrative business. Unlike the Iraq war, in which international companies brought in supplies, in Afghanistan the military outsourced its overland-logistics chain to local contractors, whose jingle trucks, so called because of their colorful, tinkling metal decorations, hauled cargo to bases across the country’s remote and increasingly dangerous terrain.
In the beginning, contractors like Hikmat were paid in cash by the US military after missions were completed. Glad to have an alternative to the Sherzais, the Special Forces welcomed him. “I was never saying no to any job,” Hikmat said. “They want anything, anytime, and you have to be ready.”
Hikmat had chosen the right time to start. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of US troops in Afghanistan increased from fourteen thousand to nearly a hundred thousand. And they were outnumbered by a second, private army: by June, 2010, more than a hundred and seven thousand contractors were working for the Department of Defense.
The jobs were dangerous — more contractors had been killed so far that year than US soldiers — but the payoff was substantial. Between 2007 and 2014, the US spent eighty-nine billion dollars on contracting in Afghanistan.
“There were so many contracts out there that you could win anything you wanted,” Simon Hilliard, a former British soldier who worked on KAF as the managing director of Watan Risk Management, an Afghan-owned security company, told me. “The margins were insane.” He said that, in eighteen months, Watan’s revenues increased from five hundred thousand dollars to fifty-eight million.
Built as a spartan military encampment, KAF became a city of tens of thousands, with paved roads and a state-of-the-art trauma hospital, as well as a Burger King and a T.G.I. Friday’s, all coated with fine desert dust and permeated by the smell of the “poo pond.” The US and its allies eventually built more than five hundred military bases in Afghanistan. Many of them had hot showers and Internet cafÃ©s.
Soldiers who patrolled mud-walled villages without plumbing or electricity, in temperatures that rose to a hundred and thirty degrees, slept in air-conditioned tents so cold that they needed blankets. It all consumed enormous amounts of fuel: in 2010, Bagram Airfield, which was comparable in size to KAF, used nearly 1.6 million gallons per week.
Most of the fuel was transported by trucks like Hikmat’s, and what had originally been an ad-hoc system grew into a countrywide network that handled billions of dollars in freight. Even its management was outsourced.
In October, 2007, not long after Hikmat rented his first truck, the contract to set up a Jingle Truck Coordination Office, a job originally handled by the US military, was signed by TOIFOR, a German company that was founded in the nineteen-nineties to supply portable toilets to NATO forces preparing to go into Bosnia. “It was an absolutely minor, small, small, little thing,” Karl Friedrich Krause, one of the company’s founders, told me. “A small job done by one guy.”
That guy was Roren Stowell, a Denver native with a snowboarder’s drawl. “We were about two weeks away from taking over,” Stowell told me. “They didn’t have a pencil.” As troop levels surged, Stowell said, “where before they were doing maybe twenty trucks a week, in a short amount of time we were going upward of four or five hundred trucks on any given day.”
Stowell went on, “There were million-dollar truck runs, paying upward of forty-five thousand dollars per truck.” The military didn’t seem to mind the expense, as long as US soldiers didn’t have to risk their lives on the road. The attitude, he said, was “Fuck it. There’s an endless amount of money — just get the trucks there and keep the customers happy.”
The money created a local ecosystem, with KAF at its apex. Stowell and his team awarded supply requests from military units to a group of Afghan trucking companies, based on price, availability, and dependability.
He soon realized that, while his subcontractors — who included both Hikmat and Sherzai — had their own fleets, they also acted as brokers for the rest of Kandahar’s truckers, hiring them and adding a hefty percentage to the cost. The subcontractors’ advantage was their access to the base and what were known locally as awwal las, or “first-hand,” contracts.
Millions of dollars were being paid by the US government to private companies, but the intermediary was typically a low-level military officer, contractor, or civil servant. The temptation to take part in the profiteering was substantial. According to a study published in May, 2015, by the Center for Public Integrity, at least a hundred and fifteen US service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been convicted of bribery, theft, and contract-rigging charges since 2005.
“It was obvious that there was an opportunity to make money by giving a specific company more missions,” Stowell said. He told me that once, when he was sent to Dubai to collect sewer-cleaning equipment, one of TOIFOR’s subcontractors, Tawazuh, offered to have someone guide him around the city. “I’m picturing this guy who will take me to HomePro,” Stowell said.
Instead, several men picked him up in a Mercedes-Benz. They offered him a Rolex watch as a gift, which he refused. “I’m like, dude, I’m looking for a Roto-Rooter, I don’t need a fucking entourage,” Stowell told me. Undeterred, the men drove him around Dubai and, that evening, tried to introduce him to some Russian women at a night club. Stowell said he told them, “I can’t take any Rolexes, I can’t take any hos, and I don’t want to go to any more dinners.” (Sadeeq Mohmand, Tawazuh’s owner, has denied offering gifts or bribes.)
While Stowell decided which Afghan companies would supply conventional units, the Special Forces were allowed to choose the companies they preferred, on the ground that they had unique requirements. “They’d come in and be like, No way, the only company that’s going to do it is this company,” Stowell said. “And I’m like, Yeah, man, but they’re three times the price of the other guys.”
Hikmat had just begun his business when Stowell arrived on KAF. By the time he left, in late 2008, Hikmat was making his first millions. “He kind of came in as an underdog,” Stowell said. “He was so young. I was just sitting there thinking, How’s this guy doing it?”
* * *
In January, 2008, Tonya Long, a twenty-five-year-old staff sergeant, arrived on KAF, where she spent six months working with the Jingle Truck Office and its contractors to coÃ¶rdinate her unit’s resupply missions.
In late 2010, federal agents confronted her over her lavish spending on furniture, a trucking business, and a vacation to Disney World. She pleaded guilty to smuggling back to the US approximately a million dollars in cash, stuffed inside VCRs, money that she said had come from Afghan contractors.
Long, who is serving a five-year prison sentence, told me in an e-mail that the bribery scheme was already in place when she arrived on KAF. She was involved in an affair with an Army captain who worked in logistics for the Bush Hogs, a sister battalion of the Desert Eagles in the 3rd Special Forces Group.
The captain, she wrote, had been taking bribes from Tawazuh in return for steering contracts to the company and for creating fake missions, which the US government was billed for. (Mohmand has denied this.) When the Bush Hogs were replaced by another Special Forces battalion, in early 2008, the captain’s successor, Captain Franklin Rivera-Medina, took over the scheme, but he favored another company: Hikmat’s.
To justify the choice of contractors, the first captain “said that ONLY Tawazuh was reliable and Rivera said that ONLY Hikmat was reliable,” Long, who also had an affair with Rivera, wrote.
The first captain, who retired from the military, was never charged, and refused to comment. The Justice Department also declined to comment. (At Long’s sentencing hearing, the prosecution stated, “We know that the prior captain did the false-claim scheme as well.”)
Rivera, when questioned by the F.B.I., admitted to receiving eighty thousand dollars from Hikmat. He pleaded guilty to charges of cash smuggling and taking gratuities, but he died in 2014, before he could be sentenced. According to a prosecution document, Hikmat admitted to paying Rivera a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in cash, but he said that the money was compensation to the military for missing shipments.
* * *
Bank statements submitted in court by Hikmat’s lawyers show that fluctuations in his earnings appear to correlate with the presence of different Special Forces battalions in Kandahar. His first six months of invoices to TOIFOR averaged a hundred thousand dollars a month; after April, 2008, when Rivera arrived on KAF, they rose sharply, totalling almost thirteen million dollars for the rest of the year. Then, in early 2009, Bradley and the Desert Eagles were back in Kandahar.
Hikmat’s invoices kept climbing, reaching $7.7 million in May; by the end of the year, he had billed TOIFOR more than forty-five million dollars. Captain Edward Woodall, a supply officer with the Desert Eagles, later wrote that the Special Forces “required a level of trust and dependability that only Mr. Shadman could provide.”
But in the winter of 2010 a new Special Forces battalion arrived, and it seemed to prefer Tawazuh. That month, Hikmat billed for less than half a million dollars. In Kandahar, Mohmand, Tawazuh’s owner, showed me a certificate of appreciation signed by the battalion’s commander. “I worked with the Americans very honestly and sincerely,” he said. “My rates are also less than other contractors’.”
When the Desert Eagles returned later that year, Hikmat’s business recovered. Woodall, who was in charge of the service detachment, obtained a “sole source” memo, which the Desert Eagles used to bypass TOIFOR’s selection process and to work with Hikmat when they wanted. Hikmat set his own prices, and, according to his lawyers, they were reviewed by both TOIFOR and the military.
“I think I remember hearing that it was more expensive to use Hikmat than the other companies, but that was all right with my chain of command because the mission was more dangerous and he was the only one who could and would do it,” Caleb Hardin, one of Woodall’s subordinates, wrote in a declaration submitted by Hikmat’s lawyers.
Hikmat’s invoices to TOIFOR reached new heights. Bradley and Myers were back in Kandahar during the Bush Hogs’ next rotation, which replaced Woodall’s in early 2011. In September alone, Hikmat’s invoices to TOIFOR amounted to $17.4 million.
One form from the Bush Hogs requesting a trucking mission contains a handwritten justification for Hikmat’s higher prices: “Always on time, never any issues, and understands how [Special Forces] operates.” Hikmat’s bid was five thousand dollars; those of three other Afghan subcontractors were $2,500, $2,124, and $1,000.
Hikmat told me that his higher prices were the result of the extra flexibility he gave the Special Forces. Often, he said, they would change the mission at the last minute, for security reasons. “I told them, don’t tell me the date, don’t tell me the time, and don’t tell me the destination,” he said.
Hikmat’s earnings from TOIFOR made up the lion’s share of a highly lucrative business. According to his bank statements, his logistics companies took in a hundred and sixty-seven million dollars between late 2007 and the end of 2012. During that period, he withdrew eighty-eight million.
Even assuming that the withdrawals were all for business expenses, rather than investments or personal spending (Hikmat also owned a gas station and an energy-drink company, and employed a mostly Filipino office staff, led by Western expatriates), that left him with almost eighty million dollars — a profit margin of nearly fifty per cent. (According to Hikmat’s lawyer, Hikmat has millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and is owed between fifty and sixty million dollars by the US government.)
By the time he was in his early twenties, Hikmat was one of the wealthiest men in Kandahar. He got married, made the hajj, and travelled through Europe, visiting the Eiffel Tower and the stadium where Real Madrid, his favorite soccer team, plays. Every Ramadan, he showered money on those in his neighborhood he judged to be poor and deserving.
Rumors spread that Hikmat would drive around in an old car, a scarf half obscuring his face, handing out hundred-dollar bills to laborers. One cash giveaway at his gas station led to a near-riot that had to be dispersed with live ammunition. It was around this time that people started calling him Shadman, which means “happy.”
The vast sums that he was handling also impressed the foreigners on KAF. Once, Hikmat told me, a Canadian soldier who searched him at the entrance found ten thousand dollars. He marvelled at the thick bundle of bills. “He said, ‘Oh, wow, just hit me with it on my face. I like it, I’ve never seen such money,’ ” Hikmat said, smiling at the memory.
Hikmat outfitted his living quarters on KAF with flat-screen TVs and opulent furniture, including an oversized bed. “Nothing fits together, because it’s the most expensive stuff that’s picked out of every magazine,” one of Hikmat’s managers said.
“Everything’s gold and shiny, and it’s got crystal in it.” Yet Hikmat never used his ornate bed, preferring, like most Afghans, to sleep on a mat on the floor. “He sat cross-legged with the locals, with baba and the guy that makes the food,” the manager said.
The Special Forces were frequent visitors. In 2011, Hikmat hosted a Christmas party, and Myers attended. In a photograph, Myers is wearing a checked shirt, and appears conspicuously massive next to Hikmat’s diminutive Filipino employees. There was a plastic Christmas tree on a stand draped in an American flag.
The guests ate pizza and drank Red Bull, and Hikmat, beaming and rosy-cheeked, handed out gifts from a secret-Santa exchange. Myers took part in a three-legged race, pulling one of the Filipino staff people along with him. “It was one of the most bizarre evenings of my life,” Franco Swart, a South African who managed one of Hikmat’s trucking companies, said.
But Hikmat was under pressure in Kandahar. He said that the Taliban had attempted to kidnap his brother, and had also threatened him at his family’s house. “After a few days, they stuck a letter on the door, that in three days if you don’t leave the job we will kill even the kids,” he said. In February, 2011, he had applied to a State Department program that allowed interpreters and other Afghan employees of the US to emigrate to America.
“I am requesting a Visa to the US in the case of an emergency,” he wrote, citing the Taliban’s threat to his life. Bradley and three other Special Forces soldiers provided supporting letters. The Bush Hogs’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Carty, wrote, “The loyalty and commitment Hikmatullah displays in supporting [the special-operations task force] and its mission goes unmatched.”
* * *
In November, 2009, Scott Lindsay, a staffer on the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, was flying back from Pakistan when George Miller, a Democratic representative from California, handed him an article from The Nation. “How the US Funds the Taliban,” by Aram Roston, claimed that Afghan trucking companies working for the American military were paying off insurgents. “Scott, do you know anything about this?” Miller asked.
Over the next eight months, Lindsay and a team from the subcommittee interviewed US military officials and contractors and reviewed thousands of documents. “It was immediately glaring that, oh, my God, this could be as bad as alleged,” Lindsay told me.
The US military had decided to make trucking companies responsible for hiring their own security. As the country descended into violence, the companies were forced to pay off the men who controlled the roads, whether they were crooked officials, warlords, or Taliban.
“The whole thing became this inadvertently but inherently corrupt enterprise that, to me, symbolized the failure of the entire adventure,” Lindsay said. “If you have to pay your enemy for the right to be there, something’s gone wrong.”
In June, 2010, the subcommittee released a report, titled “Warlord, Inc.,” which concluded that US government funds were likely going to the same people who were killing American soldiers. According to the subcommittee, the military had known about the problem for at least a year, but, Lindsay told me, “absolutely nothing was done.”
The perception among many of the trucking companies on KAF was that the US military was turning a blind eye to where its money was ending up. “We all knew what was happening,” Rodney Castleman, an American employee of an Afghan trucking company, told me. “You could be hardcore about stuff and say, We’re not going to pay nobody, but, I’m telling you, you were going to get hit on the road.”
The report landed amid a growing realization in Washington that corruption in Afghanistan was jeopardizing President Obama’s plan to stabilize the country before withdrawing American troops.
That fall, Afghanistan’s financial system nearly collapsed after it was revealed that a group of well-connected businessmen and officials — including the brothers of President Karzai and his first Vice-President — had fraudulently acquired nearly a billion dollars in loans from Kabul Bank. Far from being a source of stability, American money was part of the problem, and US officials had little idea where it was going.
“I am deeply troubled that the US military can pursue, attack, and even kill terrorists and their supporters,” John Sopko, the head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), later wrote in a quarterly report to Congress, “but that some in the US government believe we cannot prevent these same people from receiving a government contract.”
“You know, Taliban soldiers are a hundred times cheaper than American soldiers,” Pashtoon, the member of parliament from Kandahar, said. “So for a lot less money the Taliban can fight for a long time.”
The military had long been reluctant to address corruption. But now General Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, conceded that the flood of US money into Afghanistan was “both an opportunity and a danger.” He added that, uncontrolled, it could “unintentionally fuel corruption, finance insurgent networks, strengthen criminal patronage networks, and undermine our efforts in Afghanistan.” Money, it seemed, was a double-edged weapons system.
The military created Task Force 2010, a team of forensic accountants, law-enforcement agents, intelligence analysts, lawyers, and auditors, to scrutinize Afghan contractors. The team reported that, of the thirty-one billion dollars in contracts that it inspected, an estimated three hundred and sixty million dollars had reached corrupt officials, criminals, or the Taliban.
Thomas Creal, the lead forensic accountant on the task force, told me that US taxpayer dollars reached the insurgents through a layer of intermediaries that began with the contractors. “I always viewed them as an aider and abettor of terrorist acts,” he said.
In 2010, as investigators descended on KAF, contractors there began to come under scrutiny. “The military came in and did their audits,” Castleman said. “We got audited.” In October, the US military detained Mohmand, Tawazuh’s owner, on suspicion of making payments to the Taliban. Though he was quickly released, his company was barred from receiving further contracts.
In May, 2011, Hikmat, too, was banned from receiving contracts from the military, because of allegations that he had “direct association with individuals who have been involved in significant criminal activity or insurgent operations,” according to a declassified report presented in court.
Creal said that his team had initially flagged Hikmat because his invoices were so high. “It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that Shadman was getting way more money than he should have,” Creal told me.
But Hikmat’s allies in the Special Forces believed that his rivals, including General Raziq Sherzai, were jealous of his success, and that the accusations were based on false information that they gave to military investigators. “Some of Hik’s competitors were always trying to make his life difficult,” Bradley wrote. (Raziq Sherzai denied this.)
Myers told the court that he “began digging deep into both sides of the allegations.” After Hikmat took a polygraph test, Myers got the Bush Hogs’ commander to lead a successful effort to remove the ban on him. In the next six months, Hikmat’s companies billed TOIFOR for more than fifty million dollars.
But the military investigators had come to believe that Hikmat may have been paying off the Taliban. According to Creal, they discovered transfers from his account to an alleged Taliban “money mover,” who, it was rumored, was connected to a suicide bombing on KAF. Twice that year, attackers had detonated cars packed with explosives at the base’s main gate, killing dozens of Afghan civilians. Around 4 A.M. on October 1, 2012, a US military team raided Hikmat’s compound.
* * *
Hikmat’s first thought, when armed men kicked in his bedroom door, was that the Taliban had come for him. The men cursed him in Pashto, but when they dragged him outside he saw, to his relief, that there were American soldiers with them. He was blindfolded, shackled, and flown across the country to the main US detention facility in Afghanistan, at Bagram Airfield. “The way they treated me and the place they put me in the jail,” Hikmat told me, his voice trailing off. “It was a toilet.”
In intake, he was subjected to the same fate as those he had once hunted alongside the Special Forces. His head was shaved, and he was forced to strip and wash under the guards’ supervision, an ordeal that Hikmat, having grown up in conservative Kandahar, found particularly humiliating. “This is why President Karzai says that this is the factory of the Taliban,” he said. “How they treat people!”
Hikmat denied any connection with the Taliban, and passed a polygraph test. “In Pashto, we have a proverb that you cannot hold two watermelons in one hand,” Hikmat told me. “When I was fifteen, I started working with you guys. I am one of the family members of the Special Forces, and I worked against the Taliban.”
According to a declaration submitted in court by Hikmat’s lawyers, the civilian interrogator who questioned him for two months at Bagram came to believe that he was innocent. The evidence against him was flimsy and, the interrogator suspected, provided by “disgruntled former employees or business competitors who were known to be jealous and resentful of Hikmatullah’s success.”
At the time, Afghans detained by the US military were entitled to a hearing within sixty days, at which three officers determined whether they were still a threat to US and allied forces and, if not, whether they should be released.
A group of Hikmat’s Afghan supporters approached Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Kandahar, and asked for his help. Sherzai remained close to the US military leadership and often intervened in support of detainees; he had already helped secure the release of Mohmand, Tuwazuh’s owner.
On December 9, 2012, the day of the hearing, Sherzai arrived at Bagram, along with a group of tribal elders from Kandahar. He, too, was unimpressed by the evidence presented by the military investigators.
“They had no documents,” Sherzai told me. Even so, he found it plausible that both Mohmand and Hikmat were paying off the Taliban, since it was a widespread practice in the trucking business. “They weren’t powerful enough to face the Taliban,” he said. “Why would it be that easy for them to pass with their convoys?”
With Sherzai and the Special Forces vouching for Hikmat, the three officers voted to clear him. After he was released, he flew back to Kandahar. “I think it broke his spirit for a bit,” Hikmat’s employee Franco Swart told me. In Hikmat’s absence, the business had largely shut down. On January 23, 2013, Hikmat flew to Dubai, and started shopping for a piece of very expensive real estate.
* * *
Since the beginning of the war, Dubai has been a magnet for Afghans seeking to move their fortunes out of the country. Hikmat told me that, since he could no longer operate on KAF, he had decided to invest in property. He settled on Ahli House Tower, a residential apartment block of approximately two hundred units.
On February 23rd, he signed a contract to buy it for forty-three million dollars. But when he called his bank in Kabul he was told that his accounts had been frozen.
While Hikmat was detained at Bagram, the Justice Department, working with SIGAR, had filed a civil-forfeiture suit, claiming that Hikmat had paid bribes in order to obtain contracts. “The civil route made sense,” a former Justice Department official who worked on Hikmat’s case said. “There’s no extradition agreement, no way that he’d be arrested in Afghanistan.”
Since Hikmat’s bank accounts were in Kabul, the Justice Department section at the US Embassy had to persuade the Afghan attorney general’s office to recognize the warrant, something that had never been done before. The attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, a Karzai protÃ©gÃ©, was out of the country undergoing medical treatment; in his absence, his deputy acquiesced.
When Hikmat returned from Dubai, on February 28th, he went straight to the attorney general’s office, where he was told that he was under investigation. Later, prosecutors called him back and arrested him. He was thrown into prison for several hours, until a call came from the Presidential palace, ordering his release.
“Shadman’s case was a very fishy case,” a former senior official in the Afghan attorney general’s office said. “Karzai was calling us saying, ‘What happened with this case? The money was supposed to be released.’ ”
Aimal Faizi, a spokesperson for Karzai, denied that Karzai had any personal interest in the case. “For President Karzai, it was just another case of illegal detention of an Afghan citizen by the US forces in Afghanistan,” he said.
Hikmat’s accounts were unfrozen, and he transferred seventy-four million dollars to bank accounts in Dubai. When the Justice Department officials at the Embassy learned that the Afghan government had unblocked the accounts, they were furious. “One of our people went over and confronted the attorney general about it,” the former official said, telling him that he had “lost a great opportunity to demonstrate to the international community the integrity of your legal system.”
But Hikmat was still vulnerable. When funds targeted by a civil-forfeiture suit are held outside the reach of the US government, it has the authority to seize equivalent funds held by those foreign banks in the US In May, 2013, the US restrained funds in the correspondent accounts of Hikmat’s banks in New York, forcing the banks to freeze fifty-seven million dollars of his money in Dubai and Kabul.
* * *
The civil-forfeiture suit has not yet gone to trial, and both the Justice Department and SIGAR declined to speak with me about it. Hikmat’s lawyers have filed reams of documents in court — including bank statements, depositions, and business records — but the government has barely outlined its case, which alleges that Hikmat paid bribes to both US soldiers and TOIFOR contractors, including some of Stowell’s successors at the Jingle Truck Office.
Yet the Justice Department has prosecuted a series of related criminal cases in North Carolina, where Fort Bragg, the home of the Special Forces, is situated. On September 29th, five current and former Army sergeants were sentenced for taking illegal payments. Several of them wept as they spoke of their betrayal of the military and their families.
If “you did something that impaired the Army’s fighting ability,” Judge Terrence Boyle said, referring to earlier wars, “they would court-martial and shoot you.” He then handed down sentences that ranged from ten months to ten years. “I mean, how do you explain it to somebody whose child or spouse or loved one, you know, died in one of these theatres?”
Four of the soldiers had worked in the Bush Hogs logistics section in Kandahar from February, 2011, to January, 2012, Hikmat’s most lucrative period. According to court documents, the soldiers created fake trucking missions — some signed with names like Bongo Truck and Touchi Meh — and allowed Hikmat’s drivers to steal fuel in return for cash payments.
These criminal cases suggest long-running fraud within the Special Forces’ service detachment on KAF. The lawyer for the soldiers’ leader, Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Edmondson, said that Edmondson learned about the scheme from his predecessor on KAF, a staff sergeant who worked for Woodall and the Desert Eagles.
The prosecution stated that it was in the process of investigating that unit. (“My military career is over, and I’m done with that portion of my life. And that’s that,” the staff sergeant told me when I reached him by phone, before declining to speak further. He has not been charged.)
Another soldier, Sergeant First Class Robert Green, admitted to receiving at least forty-five thousand dollars from Hikmat in 2008, and said that fraudulent practices had existed before his arrival. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he coÃ¶perated with the government against his former superior, an Army captain, who recently pleaded guilty to similar charges.
“This is a cycle that goes through every year,” Judge Boyle said at the sentencing hearing. “When the new guy shows up, they say, Well, you can get a good meal over here and you can get, you know, a beer over here, and, by the way, you can pick up a quarter of a million dollars if you feel like it — we just run this operation.”
Similar cases involving fuel theft and Afghan contractors have been unearthed at other military bases in Afghanistan. “We’ve interviewed a lot of the people we’ve caught,” a law-enforcement official at the US Embassy in Kabul told me. “One of the things they say is that the system is so loose, and it’s so obvious that you can get away with it.”
The Army’s Special Operations Command, when asked whether it was aware of systemic corruption within its logistics section on KAF, declined to comment. Its commander at the time, Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, offered this statement to the court on the impact of the cases:
“The majority of the Afghan population views the United States as one more in a long line of occupiers. When people they regularly do business with, in this case the Soldiers listed above, are exposed as thieves and conspirators, the established trust and respect is destroyed.”
In late December, the Justice Department filed criminal-conspiracy and bribery charges against Hikmat. A warrant was issued, though it’s unlikely that he’ll be arrested, since he spends his time in Dubai and Kabul. He and his lawyers have denied that he paid bribes or committed any illegal activities.
In court hearings, Hikmat’s lead counsel, Bryant Banes, has said that Hikmat was paid out of logistics funds for intelligence work for the Special Forces, and that classified evidence will exonerate him. Bradley has stated that he recruited Hikmat to be part of classified “compartmented programs.”
Bradley, Myers, and Woodall have not been accused of any wrongdoing or criminal acts, and they remain loyal to Hikmat. Woodall, who is now a major, wrote to me, “Hikmat is a friend to not only myself but to the American servicemen who operated in Afghanistan. To say differently is a disgrace.”
“I don’t want nothing else to do with Afghanistan,” Bradley told me, before refusing to comment. “Everything about it gets twisted into something wrong.” Myers also declined to speak. Both he and Bradley have retired from the Army.
Myers has started a nonprofit, The World Is My Country Foundation. His Web campaigns have solicited funds for earthquake relief efforts in Nepal, and for him and his best friend to drive around the world, “helping people in every country we drive through.”
According to his social-media posts, he plans to work on charitable campaigns with Hikmat in Afghanistan. The World Is My Country Foundation is registered as a nonprofit in Texas by Banes, Hikmat’s lawyer.
* * *
Last March, I visited Kandahar City. The fiery heat of summer was still a way off, and the air was mellow and dry. There were only ten thousand US soldiers left in Afghanistan, and, compared to the mad years of the surge, Kandahar felt quiet. The long lines of trucks waiting to enter KAF had vanished, and the economy was languishing without them.
Security conditions have continued to deteriorate. In September, Taliban fighters overran Kunduz, the country’s fifth-largest city, when the government forces collapsed in a day. After two weeks of fighting, Afghan special-operations troops, backed by American airpower, retook the city. A few days later, President Obama announced that he would extend the American troop deployment, into its fifteenth year, in order to shore up the Afghan government.
Within the US government, there is growing recognition that America’s vast expenditures in Afghanistan have been self-defeating, and that the conflict is more complex than simply fighting the Taliban or terrorism. “The existential threat to the long-term viability of modern Afghanistan is corruption,” General John Allen, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told Congress in 2014.
But, in a war waged by private contracting, the line between profit and profiteering can be hard to define. In Kandahar, I was told by many Afghans that the small thieves are caught so that the big thieves may go free. They believed that Hikmat had been singled out by the Americans because he lacked the political connections of rivals like the Sherzais.
“It’s not only Hikmatullah Shadman — there were so many contractors that did the exact same thing that Shadman did,” Khalid Pashtoon, the member of parliament, said. “The only problem was that Shadman was captured.” He added, “Hikmat was like a milking cow: everybody tried to suck his milk.”
A Kandahari businessman used a different metaphor. “Hikmat was like a knight in chess,” he told me. “There were many people before and after Hikmat, far richer than him.” He said that he owned about a hundred trucks and had subcontracted for Hikmat and the other awwal las contractors on KAF.
He also claimed that he had helped to sell stolen fuel on the black market, and had delivered the cash to soldiers working with the Special Forces unit at the airport. “The bottom line is the Americans were corrupt themselves.”
“The American money was benefitting everybody — the government and the Taliban,” Gul Agha Sherzai told me. There was, he said, an apt Pashto proverb about unintended consequences: “A rifle strikes from its barrel and its butt.”
Matthieu Aikins is a Schell Fellow at the Nation Institute. He has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008, and won a 2013 George Polk Award for magazine reporting for his piece about war crimes in that country.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.