by: Jean MacKenzie
Kabul - It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
At a staff meeting in 2006, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who was then commander of Combined Forces Afghanistan, took a sip of bottled water.
Then he looked at the label of one of the Western companies that were being paid millions of dollars a year to ship bottled water by the container load into Afghanistan.
And Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said, "There must be a way of producing bottled water in Afghanistan."
Thus was born the concept of Afghan First, a policy of preferential treatment for Afghan-owned companies that steers military aid into the hands of Afghan vendors.
All local procurement from fuel delivery for the Afghan army to the production of winter socks for the Afghan police - everything short of weapons and ammunition - now comes from a variety of local contractors, who are being paid about $800 million per year from the U.S. military. The largesse comes out of the total $1.1 billion budget for local purchases that falls under the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, CSTC-A for short. It is the lead U.S. agency responsible for developing the Afghan army and police.
"We are building this country," said Sgt. Edward Gyokeres, chief of the public affairs office at CSTC-A, explaining that the program is intended to use the American and coalition aid money in a way that helps construct a national economy in Afghanistan.
But, paradoxically, this well-intentioned policy may also benefit the insurgency, according to those inside the system, who contend that a significant portion of that money going to Afghan vendors trickles down into the hands of the very enemy the U.S. is battling in Afghanistan - the Taliban.
Precise numbers are impossible to obtain in the lawless fringes of rural Afghanistan where there is very little accounting for this money, but those knowledgeable about the process estimate that at least 10 percent, or about $80 million, has in the last year gone to the diverse groupings of Afghan insurgents whom the U.S. military has come to call the Taliban.
Some contractors say as much as 20 percent of the contracts go to paying off the insurgency, which would put the number closer to $160 million a year.