500 Mattresses

The New York Times reports that US Army intelligence personnel are being diverted from analyzing insurgent activity to uncovering corruption within the Afghan government and military.  Many Afghan officers I knew would say that the initiative is exactly what’s needed:  a good housecleaning to restore the integrity of the Afghan political-military establishment.

Still, it is a curious state of affairs to be investigating—with presuppositions of guilt and with the might of our staff resources and technical ability–those we deem our partners and in whom we place our hope for a better Afghanistan.  

I faced this quandary everyday in Khowst.  The prevailing opinion was that the ANA were thoroughly corrupt.  If they weren’t skimming the pay of their own soldiers, they were shaking down the local populace.  If they didn’t buy their ranks and their jobs, they were paying the Taliban not to attack them.  If they weren’t selling equipment given to them by America, they were extorting money from the contractors who supplied them.

The possibilities for graft and corruption were indeed bountiful.  But the ANA commander I advised projected himself as a crusader for fiscal integrity and a zealous defender of the ANA’s reputation for honesty, at least compared to the police and the government at large.  He personally vetted all fuel requests to ensure gasoline and oil weren’t being resold for personal profit.  He personally paid the contractors who delivered meat and rice to the ANA mess hall.  He fired the unit designated to guard the camp gates and replaced them with troops whom he trusted not to extort money from delivery truck drivers.   And yet… maybe all this activity was to control, rather than check, the abundant opportunities for nest-feathering.

If so, he was discreet, not blatant.  Blatant was the subordinate commander who wanted us to steer a fence-building project worth $15K to one of his tribal peers for $40K.  Blatant was the police chief—one who had survived many Taliban attacks and many dangerous missions with US forces—who told us that he had paid $30K for his job and thus was justified in engaging in petty extortion to recoup his investment.

My strategy in this environment was to let the ANA know that I was always watching, but not suspiciously so.  How could I do otherwise, when my main responsibility was to build their trust and friendship, and my second to help them train and organize to fight the Taliban? 

But push-came-to-shove just as I was about to leave Khowst.  500 mattresses had been designated for a specific unit in our brigade, and US advisors had helped load them onto trucks for shipment to us.  While on patrol in the KG Pass, I watched the convoy of mattress-laden trucks lumber past on the way to our camp. 

As it turned out, that was the last time any American saw the mattresses.  The US advisors who sent them to us were livid at their disappearance and demanded investigation and answers.      

I never determined whether the ANA commander had reallocated the mattresses to another unit or resold them for profit.  Perhaps one of his subordinates had done something with them with or without the commander’s knowledge.  I told the commander  that the Americans really really cared about this one and that it was stupid to jeopardize his reputation—and perhaps his job–over the mattresses.  But he took the opposite view—did it really matter what happened to a bunch of mattresses?  Especially those earmarked for Afghan farm boys who had never slept on one before in their lives? 

And who’s to say the commander didn’t sell the mattresses to obtain money for other, more important military purposes.  Better food?  Medical supplies?  Condolence payments?

So what was more important—tracking down the mattresses or screwing up my relationship with a commander with whom I had been through thick-and-thin?  Maintaining property accountability or waging war against the Taliban?  Fighting corruption or training the ANA?  At some point the competing goals are related, and all of them in the purview of the brigade’s senior American advisor.

Before the issue was resolved, I transferred to a new position as an advisor to the corps headquarters staff.  There I watched the corps commander deliver by phone a thunderous ass-chewing to the brigade commander over the mattress issue.  But I wasn’t sure if the corps commander was angry at the brigade commander’s dishonesty (if that’s what it was) or for being dumb enough to be caught by the Americans and causing trouble.  And, ultimately, the corps commander could do little to punish his subordinate—senior ANA leaders serve by decree of the Ministry of Defense, which hires and fires commanders according to procedures and rules of their own.

A few months later, though, the brigade commander was reassigned.  For three years he had fought the Taliban and done what he could to help grow the Afghan National Army.   He had been a great friend of the American forces in Khowst and a firm supporter of the Greater Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  I would love to know that his replacement is equally or even more competent than he was.  I hope the successor does not present ethical dilemmas as I’ve described here to his American advisors.     


One Response to “500 Mattresses”

  1. Chris Brown Says:

    Hey Pete,

    As always, fascinating. It sounds more like the mob than the military–as if the Afghan Military Handbook had been rewritten by Henry Hill. Or perhaps Serpico Goes to Khowst.

    Again, terrific entry.


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