One of the US embassy cables published by Wikileaks relates to the Governor of Paktia, Juma Khan Hamdard. It contains detailed allegations that the governor is not only illegally amassing a personal fortune from US government-funded contracts, but is also fuelling money to active members of his tanzim, Hezb-e Islami, who are currently fighting the government in Balkh province. The governor, when asked, claimed that both accusations were false. However, they echo allegations that AAN’s senior analyst Kate Clark was looking into in the summer, including that a massive USAID contract had been awarded to Hamdard’s son and that the governor was managing to use (or appear to use) US forces to consolidate an abusive and corrupt rule.
I used to assume the Americans did certain things in Afghanistan (support corrupt governors, ally themselves with abusive commanders), because they didn’t know any better. If they only had the proper information, I thought, they would change such malign behaviour. The revelations in WikiLeaks indicate that they often have such information or at least serious allegations and indications, but then, apparently, carry on as normal.
In the summer, I had a series of meetings with different men from Paktia who happened to be highly critical of the governor, Juma Khan Hamdard. A few of them were Taleban and others were from communities where Taleban are active, but they included a school teacher and an engineer. Why did the Americans, they asked, support a governor who was actively fuelling the insurgency? ‘Are they stupid or complicit?’ the teacher asked, as he wondered in particular why the Americans had given the contract for buidling the road between Gardez and Ghazni to the governor’s son, Gul Rahman.
I spent six weeks requesting information from USAID as to who owns the company which has gained the USAID-funded contract to build the road. Officials took some time, but eventually said the project had been given to the American ‘development’ contractor IRD, which in turn had awarded the project to the improbably named FMCC-THEC-HCG Joint Venture. Repeated questions as to who owns FMCC-THEC-HCG Joint Venture drew a blank. It was not just that USAID officials did not have the information, they did not appear to understand why I was asking the question: ‘You don’t understand,’ one official said three times, ‘it’s an Afghan company. It’s not international. It belongs to Afghans,’ – as if I was completely stupid and as if an Afghan, any Afghan, owning the company made it clean and good and above board.
As with many Afghan companies who get contracts, information about FMCC-THEC-HCG Joint Venture – its ownership, names of the directors, an address, indeed anything beyond a telephone number – which was answered by someone who appeared to work for several such companies – is not publicly listed. Gagging orders at every stage of the USAID contracting process meant that everyone I spoke to was reluctant to talk. Such deliberate obfuscation of course, only helps engender corruption (for example in Badakhshan, see here).
The lack of curiosity from USAID officials about the ownership of the company is all the more perplexing because it comes as both ISAF and donor countries have started to review contracting policies. There has been a dawning realisation that bad aid, both military and civilian, hurts the perception of the foreign presence, and can fuel the insurgency (see for instance here). On the Afghan side, giving a major infrastructure contract to the close relative of a senior government official is not illegal (look at how well the minister of defence’s son has done from foreign security contracts, to give just one example), but the President has said he wants this to change.*
Whatever the truth of the matter of the road, the alleged graft has gone down very badly with the locals I spoke to. Their accusations go further, that the way the road project had been handled was causing unrest. ‘It wasn’t the road, we opposed,’ said the engineer who was from Zurmat district. ‘It’s not the government we oppose. During the former governor’s reign, the pre-work on the project was spread around between different tribes. It is this company’s work and the broken promise of the governor’s to spread work around and then his threat to push it through Zurmat** by force which is the problem. It’s like I have a stream in front of my house and I’m not allowed to drink from it.’
He and others said the road project was fuelling ill-will, that the Taleban had refused to allow it through (because of the issue of all the work going to tribes from outside the area and the contention that the governor had ‘lied’ about who would benefit from the project), how the governor then vowed to push it through by force and of the engendering of tit-for-tat attacks by Taleban on those guarding the road and the guards on local civilians – and of the American military then weighing in with their military might to support the governor. ‘Every day in Zurmat, there’s trouble,’ said the teacher. ‘Both the Taliban and Americans are really bad, but the foundation of the problems in the province is [governor] Hamdard.’ He named four local civilians, including a woman, whom he said had been killed at random by the security company guarding the road in retaliation for a Taleban attack on them.
Local Taleban also raised the road issue. ‘The governor didn’t want Zurmatis employed,’ said one commander, ‘so we said [in response], as long as there is a single Zurmati alive, we won’t allow the road to come through our area. And then he said, “I’m the governor, I have weapons, I’ll bombard you,” and he told the Americans to bomb our area.
This of course, is one view from the ground, which may well be self-serving. More recent reports allege the construction company is paying off Taleban not to attack. However, there have been other accusations, including that the governor has packed the administration with Hezb-e Islami supporters, of arbitrary arrests, huge bribe-taking – and, for some unfathomable reason, of American support for all this.
The accusations released in the Wikileaks cable from the US embassy make this story look like small beer. It speaks about Hamdard being ‘the central point of a vast corruption network involving the provincial chief of police and several Afghan ministry line directors,’ of alleged ‘skimming of US Government development funds,’ and ‘funnelling money he receives from bribes and smuggling (drugs and jewels)’ to his old and still active comrades in his home province of Balkh, and of having contacts with insurgents in Parwan, Kabul and Kunar. The cable says that Hamdard and ‘his accomplices allegedly act with complete impunity, blatantly placing themselves above the law.’ Complaints alleging corruption, it says, have, ‘come from all quarters, including the private sector, public employees… Afghans throughout the province generally regard him as corrupt.’ The cable also details allegations of Hamdard trying to bully contractors and the PRT into compliance.
For the record, Hamdard told us that accusations of corruption were lies and that, while he remained a proud Hezb-e Islami member of thirty years, he was from the pro-government wing of the party; he was a government loyalist and had no links with insurgents.
Hamdard was one of the key northern Pashtun commanders whose defections from General Dostum to the Taleban allowed them to take the north. He rejoined Dostum in 2001, seeking his protection (I first met him in Dostum’s stronghold at Qala-e Naw in March 2002; at that time he was keeping his head down and refused an interview). He was appointed head of the 6th Corp in Balkh before eventually going into the governorship business. By the time he was posted to Paktia in December, 2007, he came with a history. People demonstrating against his governorship in Baghlan (mainly Jamiatis objecting to a governor from their old rivals, Hezb-e Islami) managed to get him moved on. He was posted to Jowzjan where people (including cadre from Jombesh) said they opposed his pro-Pashtun chauvinism and demonstrated in Sheberghan in May 2007. His guards shot at the protestors, killing more than a dozen people and injuring many more. No action was taken, except to move Hamdard to Paktia. He remains an important Karzai ally, a key northern Pashtun loyalist and one of the President’s tribal affairs advisors.
The President’s reasons for rewarding this serially problematic governor with new posts is one thing, but the Americans’ actions or inactions to him are another. What is puzzling about the cable*** is how little appears to have come of it. It recommends making this a criminal case and getting it brought to the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF). However, this institution (which bore so many hopes of so many diplomats that it would really tackle corruption in Afghanistan) ran into trouble in late July when it arrested the administrator of the National Security Council – he was duly released on Mr Karzai’s orders who then ordered a review of all cases, complaining of infringements of Afghan sovereignty and basically de-fanging the foreign-supported institution.****
A spokesman at the Embassy said they were not commenting on any issues to do with WikiLeaks, so the question remains unanswered: why do USAID practices never seem to change? Why if the Americans suspect their money is going astray so blatantly and dangerously do they not turn the taps of corruption off?
*’ …given that contracting has been identified as a source of corruption, I am requesting that all contracts awarded by our international partners- whether civilian or military- be disclosed to ensure that neither high government officials themselves nor their relatives are unlawfully privileged’ (excerpt from the Kabul Conference, July 2010, accessed here.)
** After Greater Kandahar, Zurmat was one of the most important recruiting areas for Taleban leadership during the Emirate. It remains a stronghold of the Mansur network, one of the components of the Taleban movement.
*** A similar cable about the governor of neighbouring Ghazni province can be found here.
****Just a few weeks earlier at the Kabul conference , the President praised the Task Force, telling representatives from more than 70 countries that ‘anti-crime and anti-corruption institutions, such as the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) and anti-corruption prosecutors and judges [would] have the legal basis and resources required to act swiftly and decisively.’
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020