Recent reports have suggested that some private security firms may be bribing the Taliban and other insurgents not to attack NATO personnel on Afghanistan's notoriously dangerous highways.  Amanda Lang travels to Dubai to speak with Rateb Popal, an Afghan businessman whose security company has contracts with NATO and has also been linked to stories of bribery, about the allegations, and the industry.

Read a transcript of the interview with Col. Son Le of ACOD

COL. SON LE IS DIRECTOR OF THE ARMED CONTRACTOR OVERSIGHT DIRECTORATE (ACOD) FOR ISAF.  IT WAS ESTABLISHED TO REVIEW ALL PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTS IN AFGHANISTAN.  WE ASKED ISAF TO RESPOND TO ALLEGATIONS THAT BRIBES ARE BEING PAID, AND COL. LE AGREED TO JOIN US FOR AN INTERVIEW VIA SATELLITE FROM KABUL.

 

 

AMANDA LANG (AL):  I WANT TO START BY ASKING ABOUT THE TASK OF PROTECTING NATO CONVOYS.  HOW DIFFICULT IS IT, HOW DANGEROUS IS THIS STRETCH OF ROAD?

 

COL. LE:  Yes, Ma’am.  I think we all understand that we live in a ... in a combat environment and everywhere we travel is pretty dangerous.  However, there are procedures in place, there are communications and tactics are embedded in our operations and on top of all of that, good training and good discipline - all those factors will have to be taken into consideration to counter any type of ... of security issues, dangers.  And I think between the level of our training, our working rapport with the private security contractors who protect our convoys, all of those factors do ... it would take all of those into consideration, then I think we can overcome many of the issues on the roads.

 

AL:  HOW BIG A THREAT IS THE TALIBAN IN THE SOUTH TO THOSE CONVOYS?

 

COL. LE:  The threat is significant, again, I think our objective has to be to do everything that we can to gain freedom of movement, to gain ground supremacy and those things are accomplished by way of working very closely between the local Afghan security forces, our forces, the coalition and NATO forces.  The sharing of communications, the sharing of information, the preparation of the ... of ... of the route that we plan to take.  Those will definitely play into the bigger issue, the bigger answer to ... to minimize and to reduce the threat throughout ... throughout the country.

 

When we talk about Highway 1 or Highway 4 we’ve learned a lot from working with local nationals, worked very closely with U.S. and coalition partners to understand the level of threat.  And because the sharing of information intelligence, we’re able to minimize a great deal of threat and a great deal of security issues.

 

AL:  HAVE YOU HEARD REPORTS, AS WE HAVE, THAT SOME OF THOSE PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTED FIRMS ARE PAYING OFF THE TALIBAN?

 

COL. LE:  Yes, we have heard many of these stories and we are working extremely closely with the vendors, we’re working very closely with the battle space leadership to understand and try to have a better visibility and better accountability.  And simply put, our office, the Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate, was set up to do just that.

 

We not only look at the accounting of ... of the private security operations, we also go after the accountability of these operations.  We share information like we said.  We partner with the local nationals with local provincial officials.  We work very closely with the Afghan National Security Forces.  And the battle space owners to have better tracking of movements, better understanding of requirements in terms of delivery.

 

And I think many factors will have a play into the entire equation in order to have better understanding and better visibility of ... of their operations.

 

AL:  DO YOU HAVE A POSITION ON WHETHER IT’S OKAY FOR THESE FIRMS TO PAY OFF THE TALIBAN?  IS THAT ACCEPTABLE?

 

COL. LE:  I will tell you, I do not condone and I don’t think the United States government condone any payments, any illicit ... any illicit activities and I am not quite sure if there are any specific evidence to suggest that there are payments.

 

Although I will tell you, we as an organization, we have stood up measures to shed better light into the day to day operations of these activities.  If there are movements that are ... any time there are movements that are protected by security guards, any logistics operations, whether it’s logistics or reconstruction movements, are secured by armed contractors, then it is our responsibility.  It’s ACOT’s responsibility to track.

 

And that’s why we ... we have established the ... the ACOT movement tracking centre to track movements through our ... all the different battle space.  We share information with the battle space owners.  We share information and we partner with the local Afghan authority.  So these movements will always have clear visibility to a degree that we are trying to reach which is close to a hundred percent.

 

AL:  THERE ARE U.S. MILITARY PERSONNEL ON THE RECORD SAYING THEY KNOW THESE PAYMENTS ARE BEING MADE BY THE CONTRACTORS TO THE TALIBAN?

 

COL. LE:  I do not have any specific report.  I have not seen any specific reports on payment.  I have seen television interviews, I have seen newspaper articles that suggest these payments.  I have not seen any of these activities and I believe that there are enough measures in place at this point in time to detect those activities. 

 

Again, we stood up the ACOT movement tracking cell, the AMTC at U.S. 4 Headquarter.  On a daily basis we track over 200 convoys, more than 400 trucks per day.  We work very closely with the battle space leadership.  We share information.  We work very closely with the private security operations to have eyeballs on all the activity on a regular basis.  And so I think we are moving in the right direction.  And I don’t believe in ... in ... I believe in moving out and achieve better success in terms of freedom of movement.

 

AL:  COLONEL, YOU WOULD UNDERSTAND SOME ARE OUTRAGED AT THE IDEA THAT NATO FUNDS ARE ENDING UP IN INSURGENTS’ HANDS?

 

COL. LE:  Yes, I do understand that.

 

AL:  THERE IS A FEAR THAT NATO IS TURNING A BLIND EYE?

 

COL. LE:  I don’t believe that, Ma’am.  Again, I do believe we have shown a greater partnership between the U.S., our coalition partners and the private entities to work together toward helping the ... the counter-insurgency operation.  I don’t believe that we are turning a blind eye.  I think we recognize the complexity of this environment and we are working very, very diligently, prudently, to have better visibility, better cooperation among all the partnership that we have created, Ma’am

 

AL:  ONE ARGUMENT WOULD BE THAT YOU STOP USING THE PRIVATE SECURITY FIRMS AT ALL, AND THAT NATO PROTECTS ITS OWN CONVOYS?

 

COL. LE:  Amanda, private security companies represent if you will, close to one-fifth of the total armed forces in ... in this particular conflict.  They are a ... they represent a majority of our logistics enabler.  We rely on these companies a great deal.  Without these companies we would not be able to get the materials, without these companies we would not be able to allow our troops to have food, water, and the (inaudible) support necessities that they currently enjoy.

 

We rely heavily on these companies.  I do see that in some time in the future I cannot personally put a finger on a specific timeline, but I do see a need to, however, begin a strategic reduction of these companies, but we need to do this in a positive and a reasonable and in a ... a responsible manner.  And that is in a way we have started doing by working very closely with the Afghan National Police to begin partner, begin allowing them to provide some test run in terms of providing security escorts to some of the convoys that are currently being provided in terms of security.

 

Read a response from the Minister of National Defence

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay responds to questions about the possibility of payments to the Taliban by security firms working for NATO in Afghanistan.

Amanda Lang:  I'd like to start with whether or no you were surprised to know, to learn, that there's a possibiliity of security forces on the ground in Afghanistan paying insurgents.  Would that surprise you?

Peter MacKay:  When I first heard this, I wanted to hear more details, obviously, but look, let’s be clear, Canadian forces, the Canadian government, do not pay Taliban. Nor do we interact with them. Now, if the government of Afghanistan is involved in reconciliation, reintegration, which President Karzai has been quite open in speaking out, we’re supportive of the Afghan government doing so.

Other governments make sovereign decisions about how they conduct their operations. Canadian forces do not pay Taliban.

Amanda Lang:  What we understand, and there are now growing voices on the record on this, is that NATO pays for security of convoys and that some of those security firms do pay insurgents along, particularly Highway 1 in Afghanistan. and as a member of NATO, should we be more concerned about this - should we be looking into this?

Peter MacKay:  Well, again, there are different interpretations of this. There is payment in some instances for work, that is to try to draw young Taliban fighters away from armed conflict and into programs and projects building roads for example. We, again, I can only speak to the Canadian experience, we hire private security firms to work at perimeter security, but not to conduct military operations, nor to protect Canadian convoys. That is done by Canadian forces solely.

Amanda Lang:  In the U.S., Congressman John Tierney has created a committee to look into this.  He says he has now people on the record who have warned that this is going on.  He’s getting a lot of evidence.  So the question, I guess, that he actually has raised and we would bring to you is, should there be a Canadian government response, or could we be seen as a country to be turning a blind eye to this subject?

Peter MacKay:  Well, I think this, the Senate Committee is going to look into this and probably hear more evidence and shed further light on it. So, it would be speculative on my part to pass judgment or to speak about that other than to say again, we don’t do it. We don’t engage in that type of direct payment or even interaction with the Taliban. We’ve always taken the firm position that the Afghan government should be taking the lead in this regard, at looking at forms of reconciliation, re-integration and whether that involves direct payments, those are decisions that they should make. We’ve taken a clear decision, put a line in the sand: we don’t do that. We’re in charge of our own security, we protect our own people and we continue to make the investments we feel that are best able to provide that protection.

 

Read the story of Rateb Popal's arrest

In this interview excerpt, Afghan businessman Rateb Popal describes the story of his arrest and conviction in the United States for trafficking in heroin.

Amanda Lang: How did you get arrested?

Rateb Popal:  One of the couriers basically, he came to New York and I got a call from the guy who was handling him in Pakistan that said you know this guy arrived there and he has heroin and go pick it up from him.

So when I went there, the guy had already been arrested at the airport. It was an undercover sting operation. And then they had him set up in a hotel room and they had cameras and everything rolling. So when I went to pick it up, they arrested me. And I went to trial and I lost the trial and I was convicted. It was for two and half years. I did almost nine years, and I came out on parole.

But I think those nine years in prison, you know, changed my life more than anything else. You know, I really got to know who I was, myself, and what I was doing and my actions.  And then I went to school, I studied, went to college and enrolled there. So that was nine years I used a great deal. If I wasn’t in prison, I would probably be dead, for sure.

Amanda Lang: Today, you will have seen newspaper articles that say "the Popal brothers, convicted drug traffickers".  How do you feel about that?

Rateb Popal:  I feel very very bad about it. For me, yes, I did what I did. I’m not going to say I didn’t do it. I apologize to the people all the time. I did my time for whatever happened. Nine years of this time of my life I spent in prison. And I assisted the US government at the time and I assisted them again and again, whatever way that I could. And ever since then, I’ve never thought about going back to the drug business or have anything to do with drugs in the United States or anywhere.