The Ottawa Citizen, November 19, 2007


1.1 Million Dollar Contact of Canadian Military with a Company of Infamous Warlord

Canadian military paid the company Sherzai 900,000 Dollar for transportation services, while another 240,000 Dollars was paid out for services described only as "defence" or "research and development."

Mike Blanchfield and Andrew Mayeda

The Defence Department is keeping secret the names of dozens of companies that received almost $42 million worth of contracts in Afghanistan.

However, an analysis by CanWest News Service suggests that more than $1.1 million in business has been awarded to an Afghan company that bears the same name as one of Kandahar's most infamous warlords.

Citing national security concerns, the Defence Department has blanked out the names of all vendors from an internal database of contracts released under Access to Information. The contracts cover services ranging from hauling gravel to supplying specialized communications equipment and toilet paper.

The censorship is only one example of the growing trend toward secrecy that appears to be enveloping the Canadian Forces as it expands its use of civilian contractors and persists despite pledges by the Harper government to improve accountability and transparency, a key plank of the platform that brought the Conservative party to power nearly two years ago.

A three-month investigation by CanWest News Service has concluded that Canadian commanders in Afghanistan retain considerable discretion over which contracts are awarded and how they are reported.

The result is that Canadians aren't given all the information they need to determine whether they are getting good value for their tax dollars.

In censoring the vendor names in the Defence Department's database, officials say they are trying to protect contractors from being targeted by the Taliban.

The disclosure policy, however, appears to be arbitrary and inconsistent, since some of the names from the list have already been published on the department's website. Federal departments are required to publicly disclose the details of all contracts over $10,000.

The Defence Department could not provide an estimate of how much it spends on all civilian contracts in support of the Afghanistan mission. The $42-million database includes some, but not necessarily all, such contracts.

But CanWest News Service found that at least 29 contracts, totalling $1.14 million, went to a corporate entity known simply as "Sherzai," raising the question of whether the contracts were awarded to Gul Agha Sherzai, a powerful warlord and former governor of Kandahar.

Mr. Sherzai was instrumental in supporting Hamid Karzai, before he became Afghanistan's president, in his efforts to rout the Taliban from Kandahar in late 2001. Mr. Sherzai immediately filled the power vacuum following the Taliban's ouster, establishing a fiefdom with the backing of his own private militia before he was appointed governor.

Under a series of contracts tendered between January 2006 and March 2007, the Canadian military paid the company Sherzai $900,000 for transportation services, while another $240,000 was paid out for services described only as "defence" or "research and development."

CanWest News Service requested copies of those contracts from the military under Access to Information, but was told earlier this month that another 150 working days would be needed to process the request. The military has refused to confirm whether the company is owned or operated by Mr. Sherzai.

Western governments sometimes hire former militants in fragile states as a means to bring them into the fold, said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institute analyst who has studied the private-military industry. "It gets the warlords doing something else, because if they don't have this kind of business, they will make trouble. It gives their men jobs, it gets them off the streets."

But the practice has a number of troubling implications, he added.

"Are you are shifting these guys away from warlordism? Or ... are you simply keeping these guys empowered? The other issue is whether they use the positions not to create stability, but to go after their local adversaries."

Mr. Sherzai was replaced as Kandahar governor in 2005 after his administration was accused of widespread corruption.

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