Every day, on average, more than 200 trucks leave Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, full of everything the United States needs to fight the war. Bagram is the logistics hub for the now $60 billion a year war, where some 70 percent of the supplies arrive from Pakistan on their way to more than 200 small bases across Afghanistan.
In this landlocked country, the United States has turned to eight private trucking companies to deliver the materiel and split a $2.16 billion Host Nation Trucking contract. To do that, the companies turn to the baddest, meanest, most heavily armed people on some of the most dangerous roads in the world: Highway 1 between Kabul, Kandahar, and Helmand.
One American trucking executive details how the payments work: Each district or province that straddles Highway 1 has a "paymaster," an intermediary between the private security company and those who attack the trucks. The paymaster will collect money from the security company -- "an increasingly large amount," the executive quips -- and distribute it to whoever he needs to, including the Taliban, thieves, corrupt local officials, road bandits. "The lines between those groups are often blurry," the executive says.
Once that happens, the company's trucks are each marked physically with a distinguishing characteristic, and without exception, the trucking company executive says they travel through some of the country's most dangerous roads without incident, often passing through checkpoints run by police who are also getting a cut.
The cost is $1,500 per truck from Bagram to Kandahar, with $1,500 needed for each truck that continues on to Helmand. Given that convoys are often as large as 300 trucks, a single trip might make a security company more than half a million dollars.
"What we usually do is provide funds to a tribal elder, who will then say, this convoy is XYZ, leave it alone. They've paid," the executive says. "No matter how bad things get out there, the trucks always get through… We don't need any security if the payments are made. Nobody f---s with us."
Another American trucking executive describes a slightly different scenario. His company pays one of the largest security companies in the country -- not identified because it could reveal which company the executive works for -- to guarantee safe passage. The payments are roughly the same price, but the security company says it uses them to purchase millions of dollars of guns, ammunition and hundreds of fighters to defend every single convoy.
But fears that the security company was using the money to pay insurgents were reinforced on May 14. After a handful of particularly bad incidents, the security company – along with one other – was prohibited from accompanying any trucks. That same day, according to the second American trucking executive, his company lost 6 trucks. Within a few weeks, the government allowed the companies to resume convoy duties.
The American executive said he was convinced that all along, the security company had been staging attacks against the convoys it was defending in order to convince the trucking company of the need to pay for protection.
The trucking companies are told to deliver the goods, no matter what, according to the Tierney subcommittee and the American trucking executives.