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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

Kabul’s Wild West: "We Were Our Own Little Warlords"

There were plenty of warning signs, says Steve Appleton. A retired colonel in the Canadian army, Appleton took over in June 2005 as the manager of road construction projects in Afghanistan for the United Nations Office of Project Services. UNOPS had received a $35 million USAID grant to build a network of secondary roads throughout the country. This work might have gone to Louis Berger, had its own projects not been vastly over budget. (The price tag of its $214 million contract ultimately climbed to more than $700 million.) "There was no more appetite" to make Berger the prime contractor, Appleton told me recently from Kabul, but USAID still made sure Berger got a piece of the action. The agency stipulated that UNOPS had to subcontract out the engineering aspects of the job to Berger. And with Berger came USPI.

Early in his tenure, Appleton began to hear grumbling about USPI from a variety of sources: Berger employees, members of the UN's security branch, USAID officials, and other security contractors. Not only were there complaints about the accuracy of the firm's accounting practices, but there were serious criticisms of USPI's performance of its core mission: protecting the vital work of rebuilding Afghanistan.

According to Appleton, "USPI was absolutely detested by Afghan civilians" and had developed a reputation for being "very aggressive and very cowboyish." Among other things, he says, "They would fire before they would see where the firing was coming from. They would put down spec fire. That was just unacceptable." (Patrick Fine, who no longer works for USAID, had a different take: "They seemed to be doing their job," he says. "I never had a performance issue with them.")

The former USPI security coordinator says there was little management or oversight of the company's employees in the field. He found the company totally disorganized, its management secretive. "They kept so much stuff in the dark," he recalls. "I never signed a contract with that company," he adds. "I was thrown into it. Here's a bulletproof vest, here's a couple of grenades, here's an AK." Like a mafia payout, his $600-a-day salary came in an envelope jammed with cash. "There was a lot of cash going around," he says.

He and other ex-USPI employees tell of being dangerously underequipped, issued faulty weapons and Land Cruisers that would frequently break down on perilous stretches of road. "I was really thrown out there… without any proper gear. They didn't care, Del and Barbara." It wasn't until he went out to take target practice one day that he realized his USPI-issued AK-47 was broken. "It would only do single shot. I had to cock it every time I fired it. I thought, 'Holy fuck, thank god I didn't get in a firefight, because it would have been over really quick.'"

The equipment situation got so bad that at one point he was forced to take matters into his own hands, leading a raid on a one-time Taliban weapons depot in order to secure RPGs for his men. ("I found a Conex box filled with Russian RPGs still in the plastic.")

Berger contractors and subcontractors would complain bitterly about USPI. "I personally did not find them very professional," says Danie Steyn, an engineer who worked on Berger's road projects. "As a matter of fact, some individuals were acting like prima donnas, and considered themselves untouchable." At one point, he says, a complement of USPI's Afghan guards left him "stranded next to the road" without protection "while they set off to pray."

Such incidents weren't unusual, says the security coordinator. "Louis Berger was always complaining to us," he says. "Our guards would just take off, leave them in the middle of nowhere. I'd get sat phone calls saying, 'Where the fuck are the guards! We're out here in the middle of nowhere by ourselves!'"

According to the former security coordinator, whose account is supported by a variety of wire reports, USPI's guards were taking heavy casualties. "USPI lost a lot of guys," he says. "We were out in the desert getting pretty much executed."

"The operations were so hands-off," he adds. "They stuck people in bad places, and you had to do what you had to do to make sure you didn't get killed." He continues, "We were our own little warlords over there. We did our own thing. I could have shot a guy in the head on the side of the road and nobody would have said a thing."

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