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How to Pay Off Afghan Warlords

Anatomy of an Afghan culture of corruption.

| Tue Nov. 17, 2009 1:12 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Kabul, Afghanistan—Every morning, dozens of trucks laden with diesel from Turkmenistan lumber out of the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton on a two-day trek across the Hindu Kush down to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Among the dozens of businesses dispatching these trucks are two extremely well connected companies—Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid—that helped to swell the election coffers of President Hamid Karzai as well as the family business of his running mate, the country's new vice president, warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim.

Some of the trucks are on their way to two power stations in the northern part of the capital: a recently refurbished, if inefficient, plant that has served Kabul for a little more than a quarter of a century, and a brand new facility scheduled for completion next year and built with money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Afghan political analysts observe that Ghazanfar and Zahid Walid are striking examples of the multimillion-dollar business conglomerates, financed by American as well as Afghan tax dollars and connected to powerful political figures, that have, since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, emerged as part of a pervasive culture of corruption here. Nasrullah Stanikzai, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, says of the companies in the pocket of the vice-president: "Everybody knows who is Ghazanfar. Everybody knows who is Zahid Walid. The [government elite] directly or indirectly have companies, licenses, and sign contracts. But corruption is not confined just to the Afghans. The international community bears a share of this blame."

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Indeed, the tale of the "reconstruction" of Kabul's electricity supply is a classic story of how foreign aid has often served to line the pockets of both international contractors from the donor countries and the local political elite. Unfortunately, these aid-financed projects also generally fail—as the Kabul diesel plants appear destined to—because of a lack of planning and the hard cash to keep them operating.

The Rise of a Power Broker

Abdul Hasin and his brother, the vice-president, offer a perfect exemplar of the new business elite. The two men are half-brothers, born to the two wives of a well-respected religious cleric from the village of Marz in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul.

In the early 1980s, Fahim, the older brother, joined the mujahedeen forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 1992, three years after the Soviet army withdrew in defeat, Fahim was appointed head of intelligence in Afghanistan by the new president Burhanuddin Rabbani in the midst of a fierce and destructive civil war among the victors. When the Taliban took control of the country a few years later, Fahim became the intelligence chief for the Northern Alliance, also led by Massoud, which controlled less than a third of the country. On September 9, 2001, two days before the World Trade Center was attacked, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives and Fahim took control of the Northern Alliance, which the US would soon finance and support in its "invasion" of Afghanistan.

A number of popular accounts of that invasion, such as Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, suggest that the Central Intelligence Agency directly gave Northern Alliance warlords like Fahim millions of dollars in cold, hard cash to help fight the Taliban in the run-up to the US invasion. "I can take Kabul, I can take Kunduz if you break the [Taliban front] line for me. My guys are ready," Woodward quotes Fahim telling a CIA agent named Gary after pocketing a million dollars in $100 bills.

Once the Taliban was defeated, Fahim was invited to become vice president in the transitional government led by Hamid Karzai, a position he held for two years. It was at this juncture that Fahim's brothers, notably Abdul Hasin, started to build a business empire—and not long after, good fortune began to rain down on the family in the form of lucrative "reconstruction" contracts.

In January 2002, while Fahim took whirlwind tours of Washington and London, meeting General Tommy Franks, who had commanded US forces during the invasion, and taking the salute from the Coldstream Guards, his younger brother was putting together a business plan. Soon thereafter, Zahid Walid, a company named after Abdul Hasin's older sons, not so surprisingly won a series of lucrative contracts to pour concrete for a NATO base as well as portions of the US embassy being rebuilt in Kabul and that city's airport, which was in a state of disrepair.

On a plot of land in downtown Kabul reportedly "seized" for a song by Fahim, Abdul Hasin also financed the construction of a high-rise building dubbed "Goldpoint," which now houses dozens of jewelry shops. Soon, the company was importing Russian gas, and not long after that, Abdul Hasin set up the Gas Group, a company which ran a plant in the industrial suburb of Tarakhil that marketed bottled gas to households and small businesses.

In the winter of 2006, Zahid Walid won a $12 million dollar contract from the Afghan ministry of energy and water to supply fuel to the old diesel plant in northwest Kabul, according to data published on the website of the government's central procurement agency, Afghanistan Reconstruction and Development Services. In the summer of 2007, the company won another $40 million diesel-supply contract, and last winter it took on a third contract worth $22 million.

On October 19th, I visited Zahid Walid's heavily guarded headquarters in the wealthy Kabul neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan, not far from the even more heavily fortified US embassy. There, Ramin Seddiqui, the managing director of the company's diesel-import business, filled me in on another exclusive contract the company had secured from the Afghan government only days before for an additional $17 million. Zahid Walid is now to supply diesel fuel to the new 100 megawatt diesel power plant being built by Black & Veatch, a Kansas construction company, with money from USAID.

Most senior Afghan government officials and political figures are loath to discuss how Zahid Walid has won all these contracts—at least publicly. On a recent visit to the Ministry of Commerce, I asked Noor Mohammed Wafa, the general director of oil products and liquid gas, about them. He promptly claimed that he had never even heard of the company. He then shot a glance at my Afghan assistant and said in Dari: "That's Marshal Fahim's company, isn't it?" When I asked whether the rules were different for powerful political figures—as everyone in Kabul knows is the case—Wafa politely denied any suggestion of favoritism in the awarding of import licenses.

In fact, dozens of people assured me in private on my most recent visit to Kabul that favoritism and corruption are the essence of the Karzai government the US has helped "reconstruct" over the last eight years.

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