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Lawmakers accuse military of disregarding warnings on payoffs in Afghanistan

At a hearing, a lack of oversight is blamed for the protection racket in which private security contractors transporting supplies to troops are forced to pay warlords for safe passage.

June 23, 2010|By Julia Love, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington —

Legislators admonished military officials Tuesday for disregarding warnings that U.S. taxpayers have been bankrolling a mafia-style scheme in which private security contractors transporting supplies to troops in Afghanistan are forced to pay warlords for safe passage.

At a hearing, Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) blamed a lack of military oversight for the protection payments, which are costing millions of dollars.

A congressional report released Monday by Tierney's subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs revealed that the protection racket may be damaging U.S. troops' efforts to build a legitimate Afghan government by funneling money to the insurgency. Several trucking company supervisors said they suspected that the men they hired for protection then paid the Taliban not to attack, according to the report.

"U.S. taxpayer dollars are feeding a protection racket that would make Tony Soprano proud," Tierney said. "Further consideration must now be given to determine whether the Department of Defense's failure to properly manage or oversee its supply chain logistics contracts has undermined the overall U.S. mission."

Tierney said military oversight has not kept pace with the expansion of contracted support, denouncing the situation as a "recipe for disaster." Contractors now outnumber troops in Afghanistan 110,000 to 90,000.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said: "There seems to be very little indication that the Department of Defense is doing anything.... We don't see any activity there, and that's where the frustration lies."

Military officials said they are alarmed by the allegations and are conducting their own investigation. Army Lt. Gen. William Phillips, a leading acquisition official, said he was unaware of the abuses alleged in the report.

"We will work hard to fix the areas that we need to fix," he said.

The 79-page report concerns a contract involving eight companies that funds the delivery of the majority of goods for about 200 U.S. bases in Afghanistan at a cost of $700,000 a day.

The report calls for military commanders to take direct responsibility for the private companies guarding the supply chain and to administer the trucking and security contracts separately.

"The 'fog of war' still requires a direct line of sight on contractors," Tierney wrote in the report.

One contractor told investigators that he warned the military that he had been approached by "Taliban personnel" about protection payments before the contract even began in early 2009. Military officials acknowledged receiving the warnings but ignored them, the report states.

"These extraordinary warnings fell on deaf ears," Tierney said. "Here we are, 14 months later, and nothing has changed. I repeat: Nothing has changed."

Afghan officials have long criticized corruption, bribery and other malfeasance by private security firms, and say Western authorities have failed to rein them in.

"There are a lot of questions about these security companies," said Daoud Ahmadi, a government spokesman in Helmand province, where much of the funneling of protection money to the insurgents has taken place. "They have no accountability."

Other officials said the security services should be handled by Afghan police and soldiers.

"They should be spending this money instead on Afghan security forces," said Gen. Assadullah Shirzad, the police chief in Helmand. "The cost of just one convoy escort would pay the salaries of hundreds of police."

julia.love@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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