A contracting document for a major transportation project in Afghanistan indicates that the U.S. military is preferentially awarding contracts to companies owned by tribal elders who wield significant power within Afghan society. The performance work statement for the Afghanistan Transportation Network – Southwest/West, which was recently published by the website Cryptocomb, describes a “network of U.S. Government (USG) approved Afghan privately owned trucking companies, otherwise known as Elder Owned Companies (EOC’s or Sub-Contractors) operating under a Management Company (Prime Contractor) to provide secure and reliable means of distributing reconstruction material, security equipment, fuel, miscellaneous dry cargo, and life support assets and equipment throughout the Combined/Joint Operations Area – Afghanistan (CJOA-A) to and from Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Distribution Sites located in the Regional Command (RC) – Southwest and RC – West without the use of convoy security.”
The Afghanistan Transportation Network is reportedly modeled after a similar program in Iraq that utilized significant sheiks within Iraqi tribes to form companies providing trucking services for U.S. operations. A 2009 article from the U.S. Navy’s Supply Corps described the Iraqi Transportation Network (ITN) as a way of “seeding” Iraqi industry that is “tribal based, engaging powerful sheiks and their tribes to protect the road” in exchange for “transportation jobs for their tribal members.” During this process of tribal engagement, sheiks are vetted by U.S. authorities and meet with ITN business representatives who help them to form companies that can ultimately use their tribal members to perform trucking and other transportation jobs, thus eliminating the need for increased security. The U.S. Navy article describes the Iraqi Transportation Network as a form of “irregular warfare through economic means” helping to promote peace and stability on a tribal level.
The Afghanistan Transportation Network (ATN) operates similarly to the Iraqi model, utilizing “Influential Leader Engagement Teams” to identify key tribal elders that can be vetted by U.S. forces. These teams “meet with Elders in villages along routes of interest for coalition forces distribution” to “identify potential influential leaders for program inclusion and determine the influential leader’s sphere of influence.” These leaders are then able to form a registered Elder Owned Companies (EOC) to perform transportation and trucking services within their particular region. If new routes are needed for the deployment of U.S. forces, the program uses engagement teams to “find local Influential Leaders/Tribal Elders, conduct Tribal Elder/Influential engagements, and identify and nominate new Influential Leaders to add to an existing EOC, or form new EOCs depending on tribal dynamics, to the Regional Command for inclusion in the ATN-Southwest/West program.”
The document contains an appendix with an approved list of EOCs and a guide for finding other tribal elders who can expand the program and potentially create their own companies. A form for assessing potential tribal elders asks for “Elder Name; Father’s Name; Age; Province; District; Tribe; Reach of Influence; Closest Fob [Forward Operating Base] to Elder; Elder’s view of GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]; Elder Background.”
The source that provided the document to Cryptocomb reportedly describes the practice of paying Afghan tribal elders as an attempt at “buying hearts and minds” in Afghanistan. However, statistics on the Iraqi Transportation Network from 2009 indicate that the program was able to almost entirely eliminate loss of cargo while freeing up troops to perform other functions, rather than providing security, and employing a large number of civilians. There is a significant potential for abuse and corruption as a result of the program, as it essentially funnels money to a handful of influential tribal leaders in the hope of purchasing some form of stability. The contracting document for the Afghan version of the program states that “restrictions associated with other ATN procurements or ATN approved or nominated EOCs are intended to promote procurement integrity while maximizing the COIN impact of the ATN program to ensure actions under the contract do not create the potential for Elders/Influential Leaders to become Warlords or unduly influence or interfere with regional or provincial stability.”