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Allegations that a private security firm has been bribing Taliban and other insurgents to ensure safe passage for NATO convoys in Afghanistan are being denied by a key player in the business.

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Ahmad Rateb Popal says his company is not paying off insurgents to protect supply routes in Afghanistan. ((CBC))

Kabul-based Watan Risk Management was among the private companies fingered in recent media reports alleging that the firms are paying off insurgents to protect supply routes, essentially funnelling international funds to the very groups troops are fighting against.  

"We want to clear our position," Watan Group's owner, Ahmad Rateb Popal, told the CBC's Amanda Lang in an exclusive interview in Dubai.

"I know every penny, where we are spending it, where it's coming from and where it goes. And none of it is going to the Taliban." 

Popal heads Watan Group, a consortium, while his brother Rashid Popal runs its military arm Watan Risk Management.  

Among the company's contracts is the protection of supply convoys travelling Highway 1, a key Afghanistan road linking the cities of Kabul and Kandahar, located in the province of Kandahar, where most Canadian troops are located.

Experts question claims

Popal argues it would be impossible to pay off the patchwork of insurgent groups attacking the supply routes, since there's no single commander.

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Afghan MP Nur-ul-haq Olomi suggests security companies cannot keep convoys safe without bribery. ((CBC))

Watan Risk Management also has the highest casualty rate among private security firms, he notes, with an average of 50 deaths per month between May and October 2009.

But some experts don't buy Popal's denials.

Afghan member of parliament Nur-ul-haq Olomi, former chair of the government's defence affairs committee, paints bribery as simply a fact of life in the war-torn country.

"Security company, without paying that money, cannot keep safe … this kind of convoy," Olomi said.

Media reports

News of accusations that private security firms were bribing warlords and Taliban in Afghanistan have been swirling over the past few months.

An article in the weekly journal The Nation alleged that in a "deadly irony" the U.S.-funded military contracts account for a "big part" of the Taliban's income and potentially consist of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Everyone knows this is going on," a U.S. Embassy official is quoted as saying in an article published in August 2009 by GlobalPost, an online-based news agency.

By mid-December, CNN was reporting that Congress had launched an investigation into whether taxpayer funds used to support private military contractors in Afghanistan were ending up in the hands of warlords and the Taliban.

The MP, who is from southern Afghanistan and knows the supply route area well, remarked that there is a steep price when firms don't pay: "The convoys were burned and that's it."

Michael Semple, an expert on the Taliban and the region, also cast doubts on Popal's claims, saying there's a strong likelihood private security firms pay their way through certain stretches of the roads.

"It may well be that they've got some stretches of the road covered with agreements with enforcers and other stretches of the road where they haven't got a functioning agreement, that people on the other side are holding out for too much money," he said.

Semple, who knows Popal by reputation, describes the businessman as someone who has been "spectacularly successful" thanks to his ability to "smile to both sides" — the Americans and Taliban.

From mujahed to businessman

Popal has a checkered history. After his father was violently arrested in a communist coup in 1978 during his teenage years, Popal transformed into a freedom fighter, or mujahed.

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Michael Semple, an expert in the region, says it's likely firms pay for safe passage on parts of the convoy routes. ((CBC))

While planting bombs near Kabul's Russian Embassy, Popal lost his left hand, an eye and three fingers on his right hand. He later joined his family in Pakistan and began drug running until he was arrested in 1988 and sentenced to nine years in prison for heroin trafficking.

After his release from a U.S. prison in 1998, he returned to Afghanistan.

Though he denies joining the Taliban, videos show him in the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, taking part in news conferences led by Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef, with Popal as his unofficial translator.

But he says being friends with Taliban doesn't make him a supporter, though he acknowledges profiting during the period.

"A lot of money came to Afghanistan and I'm an acute businessman," he said. "I saw opportunities and I took them."

Some question whether he's still profiting today from connections. His cousin is Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is facing larger accusations of corruption and favouritism toward relatives in doling out lucrative contracts. Popal says he hasn't received any special treatment.

U.S. probes allegations

In the United States, allegations of bribing insurgents to protect convoy routes has sparked a review of security firms in Afghanistan by the House of Representatives national security subcommittee.

The subcommittee is examining eight U.S.-based companies that contract out ground transportation in Afghanistan for more than 90 per cent of U.S. Department of Defense goods, distributing them to camps, airfields and forward-operating bases. Watan Group is not among the eight companies but has been hired by some of them.

U.S. Congressman John Tierney, who chairs the committee, says there is evidence of bribery from a number of emails and interviews with witnesses, plus some acknowledgment from officials.

"I'm outraged by it. I think the American public is going to be outraged by it." But, he adds, no one seems to know what to do about it.

ISAF establishes oversight

Recent media reports of the practice spurred the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which oversees the trucking contracts that get doled out to local private firms, to establish a new armed contractor oversight directorate to review all contracts.

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U.S. Congressman John Tierney is part of a subcommittee examining private security firms in Afghanistan. ((CBC))

The head of the new ISAF directorate, Col. Sean Le, says the force doesn't condone bribing insurgents.

"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," he said.

"We are working very, very diligently, prudently to have better visibility, better co-operation among all the partnership that we have created."

Le denies allegations ISAF is turning a blind eye to bribery but also acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

Private security companies account for close to one-fifth of the total armed forces in the Afghanistan conflict, says Le, noting that the fight can't be waged without them.

Semple agrees that protecting supply convoys on Afghanistan's dangerous roads is not an easy task.

"We should be honest in understanding that it's a very difficult job to get supplies delivered through this territory," he said.

"To turn a blind eye to that would be a grievous mistake. But the solutions are not easy."