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The Cowboys of Kabul

How a pair of bankrupt Texas grandparents cashed in on Afghanistan's contracting bonanza.

| Mon Jul. 27, 2009 3:00 AM EDT

Payoffs and Warlords: "Loyalty Is Rented"

The story of USPI's rapid transformation from a mom-and-pop startup to a security behemoth begins in 2002, before the company was awarded a single contract. That year, Berger hired Del Spier as its security director in Afghanistan. "The program manager for Berger at the time, Jim Myers, he liked the way Del operated and he brought Del in," says a former Marine who worked for USPI. Another ex-employee explains how USPI entered the picture: "When they needed a full-time security presence, Del was the natural choice. He was already working for Berger. He was the guy there. So Berger said to him, 'We're not going to put this out to bid. We're going to give you an in-house contract.'"

A quiet man with a rugged demeanor, a thick Texas drawl, and the cowboy boots to match, Del, who's 73, told his employees stories of working as an intelligence operator during the Vietnam War for Air America, the CIA-run airline. In the early '90s, when he was heading a company called Del Spier & Associates, he'd worked in Algeria for Bechtel, helping to protect its employees from attacks by Islamic militants.

Barbara Spier
Barbara Spiers: Houston mover and shaker.
Photo courtesy of Picasa user NAWBO

Barbara, who's 59, had always handled the administrative end of things. She was a mover and shaker in Houston, active in local professional organizations. She once served as the president of the Federation of Houston Professional Women; the National Association of Women Business Owners even named her Houston's Woman Business Owner of the Year. In Afghanistan, she took a keen interest in the plight of Afghan women.

USPI's contract required the company to protect stretches of terrain so vast that it would have been too costly to hire enough US or expat contractors for the job. But Del had a solution. He brokered a deal with Afghanistan's fledgling Ministry of Interior, which agreed to loan USPI hundreds of its troops—a coterie of ragtag militiamen under the command of a notorious warlord named General Din Mohammad Jurat. Accused of a range of criminal activity (including the murder of a man whose wife he wanted for his own), Jurat had been described to Human Rights Watch in 2003 as a "maniac" and "dangerous." In 2007, Afghanistan's then attorney general, Abdul Jabar Sabet, alleged that Jurat and his bodyguards attacked him in a botched kidnapping attempt. "His allegiance was to one entity and to one entity alone," says an ex-USPI employee who dealt with Jurat. "That was the US dollar."

In an arrangement that would have far-reaching consequences, USPI essentially partnered with the former Northern Alliance commander, paying his soldiers a $5 per diem for performing guard duties. According to multiple sources familiar with USPI's operations, the firm went on to cut similar deals with power brokers throughout the country—basically buying the allegiance of tribal leaders and provincial officials as the road construction work passed through terrain under their control. "If you wanted security, you had to pay off the warlord or whoever controlled that region," says the former Berger official. In some cases, he says, militia commanders were paid simply to ensure "they're not going to attack you."

He adds, "There was a saying in Kabul: 'Loyalty is rented.'" And it went to the highest bidder.

The company's Afghan recruits were ill trained and unpredictable, according to a former USPI security coordinator. "If it came down to a firefight, they would have bailed on us," he says. "A lot of them were kids really. I remember trying to teach them how to shoot and they had no idea how to handle an AK." Others, he said, "were ex-Taliban, or even current Taliban, but the fact that they weren't attacking us along the way—whatever worked for us worked."

Employing Afghan guards may have solved the manpower issue. But it may have also worked against one of the international community's crucial goals: demilitarizing armed factions. In 2005, the International Crisis Group reported that USPI's hiring practices had in fact served to strengthen militia commanders "politically, militarily, and economically." Many of USPI's guards, this NGO said, had "used their authority to engage in criminal activity, including drug trafficking." A former USPI supervisor told me of guards who as a side project set up roadblocks on the stretches of road they were supposed to be protecting, extorting money from passersby. The former Berger official says the situation was a catch-22. "If you don't pay them off, they kill your security staff and your contractors," he says. "If you do pay them off, it exacerbates the problem for the future."

Yet as risky as this relationship may have seemed, the deployment of Afghan guards, overseen by US and international security coordinators employed by USPI, became the firm's business model—and a lucrative one. Building on its foundation with Berger, USPI drummed up contracts with the World Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (that country's version of USAID), the United Nations, and a range of private businesses, including local banks and hotels. In September 2004, it won another USAID subcontract, via Berger, this one worth more than $20 million. Eventually, USPI provided security for Berger's entire Afghanistan operation.

By 2006, USPI claimed to employ more than 3,000 Afghan guards, along with 160 US and expat employees, and had a significant presence throughout the country, especially in Kabul, where guard shacks bearing its logo were a common sight. "It basically grew into a monster," the former Berger official says. On its website, the company described itself as "the foremost private security company working in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan." Its stated goal? To "help bring about change and improvement for the people of Afghanistan."

Without question, USPI's role in Afghanistan had brought about change and improvement for the Spiers. In Kabul, they took up residence in a luxurious compound that some of their employees jokingly called the "marble palace." In their bedroom, an ex-employee adds, was a safe that sometimes contained upward of $1 million cash, used to bankroll USPI's operation.

The former USPI security coordinator told me, "I remember at one point seeing boxes of cash that they were bringing in. I thought, 'Wow, that's really fucking weird.'"

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