MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — For months, reports have abounded here that the Afghan mercenaries who escort American and other NATO convoys through the badlands have been bribing Taliban insurgents to let them pass.
Then came a series of events last month that suggested all-out collusion with the insurgents.
After a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians, two of the biggest private security companies — Watan Risk Management and Compass Security — were banned from escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar.
The ban took effect on May 14. At 10:30 a.m. that day, a NATO supply convoy rolling through the area came under attack. An Afghan driver and a soldier were killed, and a truck was overturned and burned. Within two weeks, with more than 1,000 trucks sitting stalled on the highway, the Afghan government granted Watan and Compass permission to resume.
Watan’s president, Rashid Popal, strongly denied any suggestion that his men either colluded with insurgents or orchestrated attacks to emphasize the need for their services. Executives with Compass Security did not respond to questions.
But the episode, and others like it, has raised the suspicions of investigators here and in Washington, who are trying to track the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to private security companies to move supplies to American and other NATO bases.
Although the investigation is not complete, the officials suspect that at least some of these security companies — many of which have ties to top Afghan officials — are using American money to bribe the Taliban. The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.
The suspicions raise fundamental questions about the conduct of operations here, since the convoys, and the supplies they deliver, are the lifeblood of the war effort.
“We’re funding both sides of the war,” a NATO official in Kabul said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was incomplete, said he believed millions of dollars were making their way to the Taliban.
Firms Tied to Officials
The investigation is complicated by, among other things, the fact that some of the private security companies are owned by relatives of President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan officials. Mr. Popal, for instance, is a cousin of Mr. Karzai, and Western officials say that Watan Risk Management’s largest shareholder is Mr. Karzai’s brother Qayum.
The principal goal of the American-led campaign here is to prepare an Afghan state and army to fight the Taliban themselves. The possibility of collusion between the Taliban and Afghan officials suggests that, rather than fighting each another, the two Afghan sides may often cooperate under the noses of their wealthy benefactors.
“People think the insurgency and the government are separate, and that is just not always the case,” another NATO official in Kabul said. “What we are finding is that they are often bound up together.”
The security companies, which appear to operate under little supervision, have sometimes wreaked havoc on Afghan civilians. Some of the private security companies have been known to attack villages on routes where convoys have come under fire, Western officials here say.
Records show there are 52 government-registered security companies, with 24,000 gunmen, most of them Afghans. But many, if not most, of the security companies are not registered at all, do not advertise themselves and do not necessarily restrain their gunmen with training or rules of engagement. Some appear to be little more than gangs with guns.
In the city of Kandahar alone, at least 23 armed groups — ostensibly security companies not registered with the government — are operating under virtually no government control, Western and Afghan officials said. On Kandahar’s chaotic streets, armed men can often be seen roaming about without any uniforms or identification.
“There are thousands of people that have been paid by both civilian and military organizations to escort their convoys, and they all pose a problem,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister. (Mr. Atmar resigned under pressure from President Karzai on Sunday.) “The Afghan people are not ready to accept the private companies’ providing public security.”
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