Dubious Afghan airline Kam Air circles back into US orbit

Kam Air, accused by a US general of bulk opium smuggling, was exonerated by Afghan investigators. Now it has a green light to bid for US government contracts. 

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during the opening of the Bayat Media Centre in Kabul January 21, 2014. Karzai wanted to protect a financially and politically-powerful ally, Kam Air owner Zamari Kamgar, accused by a US general of bulk opium smuggling.

A year ago I wrote about the strange case of Kam Air, an Afghan company that was blacklisted after the US military accused the company of bulk opium smuggling. The strange part was over how quickly the US blacklisting – confiscation of planes or prosecutions were never on the cards – was dropped. 

It was clear by the speed of the reversal that the decision was a political one: Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted to protect a financially and politically-powerful ally, Kam Air owner Zamari Kamgar (who steadfastly denied the US military's accusations about drug smuggling).

At the time the US military was none too pleased about the pill they had to swallow. ISAF spokesman Col. Thomas said "we are suspending this action pending the outcome of the Afghan government’s investigation" but added that the evidence of Kam Air smuggling opium was clear. It may have been clear to ISAF. But the Afghan investigation is now complete and - surprise! - appears to have completely exonerated Kam Air. And it appears the US government is fine with that.

Today a representative from the company forwarded me a letter sent to Hamid Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan's civil aviation authority. The letter dated Jan 12, 2014 from Melvin Cintron, a diplomat at the US embassy in Kabul. And the meat of it is that the company need not be afraid: 

I am writing in response to your request for additional information on the status of Kam Air Airlines following media reports that the airline was on a Unites States Government (USG) list of banned vendors. I wish to ensure you that we have held discussions with our military counterparts and have coordinated this response to ensure clarity and consistency. As such we wish to advise you of the following:

  • Kam Air is not on a USG list of prohibited vendors, thus they are not prohibited from applying for USG awards.
  • Kam Air, like every other vendor applicant, would go through a vetting process.
  • USG vendor vetting results do not bar vendors from applying or reapplying for awards.
  • USG vendor vetting results do not necessarily prohibit a vendor from being selected for an award.
  • The interested stakeholders are in receipt of the investigation outcome from the Afghanistan Attorney General's Office Investigation Committee.

That the Afghan Attorney General would clear Kam Air was a foregone conclusion last February. Same goes for the US military, with the State Department in the lead, given the stakes for President Hamid Karzai. Airline owner Mr. Kamgar played a powerful role in securing Hamid Karzai's return to power in 2009 elections. He helped to broker a peace between ethnic Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostun and Karzai that shored up the president's vote machine in key parts of the country. Now, with new elections due in April, Karzai needs all the allies he can get to deliver the vote, even though he won't be a candidate due to term limits. 

So the whole matter of Kam Air's dubious record seems to have been put to bed.

Even so, the US embassy letter is extraordinary. "USG vendor vetting results do not bar vendors from applying or reapplying for awards." In plain English, this means that even if corruption or evidence is found that a contractor is materially or otherwise supporting the Taliban, they still might be given a contract. And why emphasize this point?

The pivot to Kam Air underscores just how contradictory the US Afghan "strategy" is. For years the US military paid for convoy protection to local Afghan warlords, many of whom were aligned with the Taliban. US drug policy has mostly focused on poppy eradication, never mind the consequences for insurgent recruitment of depriving poor farmers of their limited livelihood (it turns out that's not an effective way to win hearts and minds).

But if the US military indeed had strong evidence of a political powerbroker close to Karzai smuggling opium (which is processed into heroin) this would have offered an opportunity to undermine drug proceeds without uprooting a farmer's valuable crops. Much of the money from Afghanistan's opium sales flows to various parts of the insurgency, as well as officials in Karzai's government, Afghan officers and policemen. If the US military's allegations were true, this was a chance to strike a blow at that revenue stream without uprooting a farmer's best prospects of feeding his family in the coming winter.

At any rate, opium production has continued to soar. The profits flow to various parts of the insurgency, as well as government officials and security forces. The US estimates that land under opium poppy cultivation grew almost 40 percent last year, and the UN estimates that opium sales brought in $3 billion – about 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP. Since 2002, poppy cultivation has tripled, and all that growth has occurred while the US has spent $7 billion on drug interdiction.

Here's how the US Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko summed it up last week:

The narcotics trade is poisoning the Afghan financial sector and fueling a growing illicit economy. This, in turn, is undermining the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. There are already signs that elements within the Afghan National Security Forces are reaching arrangements with rural communities to allow opium poppy cultivation, or even encouraging production, as a way of building local patronage networks and to establish rent seeking opportunities.

In sum, the expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs is one of the most significant factors putting the entire U.S. and international donor investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. All of the fragile gains we have made over the last twelve years on women’s issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance are now, more than ever, in jeopardy of being wiped out by the narcotics trade which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption.

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