Catch-22 in Afghanistan

Catch-22 in Afghanistan

By David Isenberg

It is not every day that an actual war imitates art, so when it does happen people should sit up and take note.

And no, the case in point is not recent events in Iraq, where protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad led the United States to kill Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, leading people to speculate the U.S. is about to create its own “Wag the Dog” scenario.

Instead, the example is Afghanistan. In late December news broke, largely unnoticed, that nearly 400 people who were either wounded while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan or are family members of service members who died in the conflict, sued a group of companies they say helped fund attacks against Americans by making protection payments to the Taliban.

The plaintiffs—385 Americans, including dozens of veterans and members of Gold Star Mothers families—accuse the companies of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act and are seeking damages.

The suit said the funds from the development and private security firms were part of a “common practice by certain corrupt contractors” that sought to save money on security by paying off the Taliban. “Defendants decided that buying off the terrorists was the most efficient way to operate their businesses while managing their own security risks — even though doing so jeopardized other American lives.”

According to the 288-page complaint filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., “Defendants supported the Taliban for a simple reason: Defendants were all large Western companies with lucrative businesses in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and they all paid the Taliban to refrain from attacking their business interests. Those protection payments aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an al-Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans.”

The complaint states that:

Defendants often hired private-security subcontractors with the knowledge that those companies would deliver “security” by paying off the Taliban. Those protection payments were typically structured in one of two ways. The payments often took the form of cash transfers – routed through Afghanistan’s hard-to-trace hawala system – to Taliban agents. Alternatively, the payments sometimes took the form of salary disbursements to Taliban “guards” that Defendants (or their subcontractors) hired directly onto their payroll. Either way, the logic was the same. Defendants decided that buying off the terrorists was the most efficient way to operate their businesses while managing their own security risks – even though doing so jeopardized other American lives.

Nor can the defendants claim they did not know what was going on. The lawsuit notes:

Defendants similarly knew or recklessly disregarded that their payments (including the ones their subcontractors made) helped finance the Taliban’s terrorist campaign in particular. Defendants or their agents often negotiated those payments at meetings with Taliban officials, representing the centralized Taliban Financial Commission, leaving no doubt that the payments were for the Taliban’s benefit. The Taliban also generated documents on official Taliban letterhead – including so-called “Night Letters” and tax receipts – that memorialized the protection racket and further notified Defendants about whom their payments were helping. And the Taliban openly identified anti-American terrorism as the reason it sought such payments. Given the Taliban’s own conduct, companies that chose to comply with its demands understood the consequences. They knew their payments would strengthen the Taliban’s terrorist insurgency, but they decided that their own personal interests were more important.

The art that this reality is imitating is, of course, Joseph Heller’s famous novel Catch-22. Specifically Heller’s infamous character Milo Minderbinder, probably the best known of all fictional profiteers in American literature.

Minerbinder is a satire of the modern businessman, and is the living representation of capitalism, as he has no allegiance to anything or anyone unless earns him money. In the novel he even begins contracting missions for the Germans, fighting on both sides in a battle in Italy, and orders his fleet of aircraft to attack the American base where he lives, killing many American officers and enlisted men. He finally gets court-martialed for treason. However, as his M&M Enterprises proves to be incredibly profitable, he hires an expensive lawyer who is able to convince the court that it was capitalism which made America great, and is absolved only by disclosing his enormous profit to the investigating congressional committee.

His most famous quote is this: “Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole feud to private industry.” As a testament to the presumed utility, indeed superiority, of private sector prowess in war that is, to borrow from MasterCard commercials, priceless.

Not surprisingly, Minderbinder is quite popular in the private military and security (PMSC) contracting world. And PMSCs are very much a part of the American war effort in Afghanistan.

Admittedly, corruption in war zones is not rare—especially in Afghanistan. And this is not the first time PMSCs have been linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The previous time was in late 2009, when two British private security companies made payments to Afghan warlords codenamed ‘Mr White’ and ‘Mr Pink,’ names taken from the movie Reservoir Dogs.

A Senate Armed Services committee report “uncovered evidence of private security contractors funneling U.S. taxpayers dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities. It revealed squandered resources and dangerous failures in contractor performance, including untrained guards, insufficient and unserviceable weapons, unmanned posts, and other shortcomings that directly affect the safety of U.S. Military personnel.”

Bad as that was, it was just two private security companies hiring members of two warlords private armies as staffers. What is going on now is considerably worse. The lawsuit alleges that “companies that worked in war-torn Afghanistan commonly acceded to the Taliban’s mob-style demands for payment in exchange for the guarantee that their businesses interests would not be attacked.”

One unnamed American executive who worked in Afghanistan is quoted in the complaint as saying “We don’t need any security if the payments are made. Nobody f—s with us.”

The payments allegedly climbed as high as 40% of the value of the company’s project and were often facilitated through subcontractors. Given that a single task order from a contract can easily run into the tens of millions of dollars, and that an entire project cost could run into the hundreds of millions, this represents a huge windfall for the Taliban.

Ironically, among the companies named in the lawsuit are the London-headquartered G4S Holdings International and its subsidiaries, and the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida company Centerra Group. Centerra and G4S Holdings’ alleged payments date back to a company called ArmorGroup, which held contracts in Afghanistan beginning in 2007. Centerra is the successor to ArmorGroup North America, which held contracts in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009, while G4S took over what was ArmorGroup International.

ArmorGroup was the company that hired Mr. Pink and Mr. White back in 2009.

Another irony is that last Dec. 27 a U.S. appeals court ruled that DAI Global LLC, another of the defendants named in the suit, will get another chance to seek reimbursement from the federal government for a $2 million fine assessed by Afghanistan in connection with DAI’s private security services in the country.

War profiteering is one thing. Funding the enemy who kills your own troops is quite another. Such a concept is inherently a Catch 22, which in Heller’s world boiled down to a no-win or absurd situation.

As retired U.S. Army officer Danny Sjursen wrote, “what does it say about a war if supplying it, maintaining it, requires paying extortion money to the Taliban, to the purported enemy? What does it say about a war if private corporate contractors are, by default, working at cross-purposes from the American troops? Surely that wasn’t the case on D-Day, in the Second World War, when the U.S. Army fought nazism. Yet here we are.”

If this is not life imitating Joseph Heller’s art, nothing is. 

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