Afghan corruption, opium, and the strange case of Kam Air

Kam Air, an airline owned by a politically-connected Afghan businessman, was blacklisted by the US military in Afghanistan for opium smuggling. Then the Afghan government complained.

Andrew Burton/Reuters
A US Army Blackhawk helicopter flies above Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Tuesday. The US military blacklisted Kam Air, an airline owned by a politically-connected Afghan businessman, for opium smuggling.

In late January, the US military blacklisted Afghanistan's Kam Air from winning contracts with the US in Afghanistan, with the head of a US military anticorruption unit asserting that the airline was involved in bulk opium smuggling on commercial flights to Tajikistan

The decision touched off a flurry of backroom lobbying, given the political connections of Kam Air's owner and the shadow it cast over efforts to merge the private airline carrier with the struggling Afghan government-owned airline Ariana.

The result? A few weeks later, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) issued a terse statement announcing that Kam Air would be removed from the blacklist pending the results of an Afghan government investigation into the drug smuggling charges.

The release outlines a Feb. 2 meeting between senior officials in the Afghan government and the US military in Kabul. There, "US military officials explained why they had recommended the [blacklist] designation to the commander of CENTCOM," or the US Central Command based in Tampa, which is in operational control of the Afghanistan mission. The brief statement makes no explanation as to why the Afghan government's arguments were convincing, though it implies that questions of Afghan sovereignty were crucial.

"The CENTCOM commander made the decision to suspend the 841 designation because he believes it is an appropriate, logical course of action at this time for the sovereign Afghan Government to conduct a full investigation of Kam Air."

Perhaps. But why Afghan sovereignty should determine who the US military does business with isn't entirely clear. Nor is it clear why the position of Maj. Gen. Richard Longo, who commands a task force to combat contracting corruption in Afghanistan, has been ignored. He told The Wall Street Journal in January that "the U.S. will not do business with those who fund and support illicit activities. Kam Air is too large of a company not to know what has been going on within its organization.”

Making this story stranger still were the comments of ISAF and US Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Thomas Collins to Stars and Stripes yesterday. He said, in the words of the Stars and Stripes reporter, that "the decision to rescind the blacklist decision did not call into question the evidence uncovered by the original US investigation."

An Afghan contact of mine, and a former senior adviser to the Afghan government, has an explanation. He alerted me to the ISAF press release with an e-mail headed "the fix is in!"

He asserted that essentially the US is doing a favor for President Hamid Karzai by protecting the business interests of Zamari Kamgar, the owner of Kam Air (Mr. Kamgar rejected allegations of any wrongdoing at the airline in an interview with The Wall Street Journal after the original designation was made, and the next day he told AFP he might seek "compensation" for the US military's "baseless, unbelievable and insulting allegation"). As with many operational decisions in Afghanistan, the press release exudes a strong odor of political calculations being made and acted on.

The 'designation'

What is a Section 841 designation? The section is in the National Defense Authorization Act, and is designed to prevent US contract money from ending up in the hands of the Taliban or any other person or group "actively supporting an insurgency or otherwise actively opposing United States or coalition forces in a contingency operation in the United States Central Command theater of operations."

One of the bitter truths of the Afghan war is that huge amounts of American and European money have flowed via contractors into the hands of the insurgency, leaving the US and its coalition partners in the position of helping to pay for the bombs and bullets used to kill Afghan and foreign soldiers. The issue is not a new one, with trucking contractors paying protection money to groups connected to the insurgency in order to buy safe passage for US fuel, ammunition, and food deliveries to US bases.

The US also believes the drug business to be one of the principal money makers for the Taliban. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which investigates corruption in US spending in Afghanistan, said in his latest report out this month that Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's opium and that "the illicit drug trade also supports the insurgency."

The report also found persistent and high levels of corruption in the Afghan police, judiciary, and among its elected leaders. The Attorney General's office, which presumably would lead an investigation into Kam Air, is not spared.

While the ISAF press release said that US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the Afghan Government "remain mutually committed to transparency and combating corruption" that isn't the impression you'd get from reading the SIGAR report, which wrote the following about the Attorney General's office:

"Despite the importance the United States and the international community place on progress in punishing high-level officials guilty of corruption, the Afghan Attorney General Office (AGO) made no significant anti-corruption indictments or prosecutions this quarter... The AGO has claimed progress in his compliance with President Karzai’s anti-corruption and governance decree (PD45), but that claim does not reflect (the State Department's) understanding of events and omits important facts. For example, the Attorney General is responsible for issuing indictments on corruption, but two of the major stakeholders in the Kabul Bank scandal, President Karzai’s brother and Vice President Fahim’s brother, were not on the list of those indicted for crimes related to the bank’s collapse. The Attorney General also fired a reportedly reputable government whistleblower in the AGO because of the whistleblower’s determination to build corruption cases against government officials, according to State. The Attorney General brought charges against the whistleblower for libeling ministries by accusing them of corruption in front of the Parliament."

The Afghan government's own track record at rooting out official corruption under President Karzai is probably best summed up as "awful." As the US winds down its military operations in Afghanistan, spending still remains very high. The US is expected to spend $10 billion on Afghan reconstruction and far more in directly supporting military operations. It's a fair bet that a chunk of the money will go into the hands of Afghan politicians, warlords, and the Taliban alike. 

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