Deals between Afghan army, Taliban spur doubts on US aid under Trump

Afghan army soldiers run for position during a firefight in Kunduz city in October 2015.


By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Bloomberg | Published: February 8, 2017

When Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Mohammad wants to purchase cheap weapons and fuel, he goes to see the Afghan army.

Armed representatives from both sides sometimes meet twice a month, said Mohammad, 45, who has battled U.S. and Afghan forces since 2001. "It's simple and cheaper," he said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location.

Making deals with low-ranking Afghan army officials since 2013, Mohammad is living witness to last month's report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which found that a high percentage of fuel and ammunition stolen by Afghan forces ended up in the hands of their ostensible enemies.

As the Taliban and Islamic State ramp up their insurgencies against the government of President Ashraf Ghani, new revelations of corruption and double dealing have put into doubt the effectiveness of the $69 billion the U.S. has spent training Afghanistan's army, with calls mounting for President Donald Trump to review the 15-year war in Afghanistan.

While it's unlikely Trump would order a complete U.S. withdrawal — given it could strengthen the Taliban and other militant groups such as Islamic State — the graft provides "an excellent excuse for the administration" to justify reducing aid, said Timor Sharan, International Crisis Group's senior Afghanistan analyst in Kabul. "Such corrupt and criminal practices within the armed forces is likely to increase."

In a Jan. 25 statement Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed urged Trump to abandon Afghanistan's "unwinnable" war, which is being driven mainly by the presence of foreign forces.

While Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spoke with Ghani on Tuesday to discuss security, as president, Trump has yet to outline any clear policy on Afghanistan. But in January 2013 he tweeted: "Let's get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there."

Last year the Taliban briefly took parts of the northern city of Kunduz, and is still threatening the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. The capital has also seen an increase in attacks. A suicide bombing in the parking lot of the Supreme Court building in Kabul on Tuesday killed about 20 people and wounded 40 others, Afghan Interior Ministry Deputy spokesman Najib Danish said.

"We have our eyes on Kabul today following the tragic suicide bombing," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement after the attack. "We also reaffirm our support to the Afghan government as they work to defend their people against enemies of peace."

The deteriorating security situation led then-President Barack Obama last July to roll back his pledge to withdraw all combat forces, announcing that 8,400 troops would remain through 2017. U.S. forces estimate that only 57 percent of the country is under government control or influence, a 15 percent decrease since November 2015.

For its part, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry played down the issues surrounding fuel purchasing raised by the SIGAR report as being from a couple of years ago.

According to the SIGAR report, a 2010 decision by the U.S. to shift from purchasing fuel directly for the Afghan army, to allowing the army to buy its own fuel, created an opportunity for corrupt army officials.

"There might be now some very smaller cases of selling some fuel or ammunition" to the Taliban, said Mohammad Radmanish, a deputy spokesman of the ministry. He said the group used mainly "Chinese, Pakistani and Egyptian weapons" purchased on many black markets across the border with Pakistan.

The U.S. Army in Kabul has no evidence to either support or refute the SIGAR report, spokesman Bill Salvin said in an email.

"Efforts by the Afghan government to address corruption and increase transparency and accountability are and will remain an important part of this effort," Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said in a Jan. 30 e-mail, adding the U.S. was taking measures to reduce graft in Afghanistan.

After the Ministry of Defense couldn't confirm that soldiers reported as being on hand were actually enrolled in their proper position or because vacancies remain unfilled, Stump said the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan "has stopped providing funds" for the equivalent of a quarter of authorized Ministry of Defense and Afghan National Army billets.

Late last year, Ghani asked the U.S. to resume procuring fuel because of corruption concerns surrounding purchases made by the Afghan forces, Stump said.

Yet out on the battlefield, some military units continue to make deals with Taliban, said a police officer with knowledge of the matter, saying bullets cost 25 Afghanis (37 cents) each.

"These reports about corruption will increase demands that the Afghan government be accountable," said Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

This "could lead to conditioning aid based on concrete actions to reduce corruption within the Afghan security forces, including a demand for prosecutions."

Bloomberg's Ruth Pollard and Nafeesa Syeed contributed.