By Emma Graham-Harrison
Senior Afghan officials are said to have discovered large-scale theft of fuel in Helmand and halted all deliveries to police in the province, compromising the ability of the force to operate in one of the Taliban's major strongholds.
The cost of stolen or "misallocated" fuel in the province is thought to run into hundreds of millions of dollars. One official estimated its worth at $600m (£380m), though a spokesman for the Nato-led coalition said that would be equivalent to the total annual fuel budget for all Afghan security forces.
The apparent severity of the authorities' response, halting supplies since the start of November, indicates they considered the theft exceptional even in a country where fraud is rampant. To tackle it, they were willing to leave police without the fuel they needed to patrol one of the most dangerous parts of country, potentially putting security gains there at risk.
"There is an investigation still going on, but there was thievery … or at least a misallocation of a huge amount of fuel at the provincial level," said US Marine Captain Devin Blowse, the company commander at Forward Operating Base Delhi in the Garmser district of Helmand.
Blowse said senior Afghan government officials were cutting off the Helmand police's fuel until they could stop the problem. "The higher levels in their government are basically cutting them off until the investigation can be completed and they can ensure it's not going to continue to happen," he said.
When they heard about the cut-off, marines responsible for training Afghan police units scrambled to fill the gap with Nato fuel. Officially they had stopped providing diesel months earlier, hoping to force the police to strengthen their own supply, but too much was at stake.
"You can't just turn off fuel," said Lieutenant Shane Vickers, a logistics expert on the police training team in the district, who asked for a month's supply. "They can't go out on patrol if they don't have any fuel. They can't run their generators, they don't have power," he said.
The cost of stolen or "misallocated" fuel in the province is thought to run into hundreds of millions of dollars. One official estimated its worth at $600m (£380m), though a spokesman for the Nato-led coalition said that would be equivalent to the total annual fuel budget for all Afghan security forces. (Photo: Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters)
Both the provincial police chief and his top logistics officer confirmed that supplies to Helmand had been temporarily halted, although they denied corruption concerns played any role.
Police chief Colonel Abdul Nabi Elham said the cut-off was due to teething problems with new Nato procedures for fuel truck drivers and a new system to calculate fuel allocations, both of which had been resolved.
Logistics chief Colonel Torjan said fuel supplies had dried up two months ago and police had been buying diesel with government funds from ordinary gas stations. The stoppage was because Nato worried about the size of the bills. "There is a lot of spending on fuel, that's the reason," he told the Guardian . "They [Nato] said: 'you are using a lot of petrol, more than necessary'. He expected the disagreement to be resolved soon, he said.
Without stopgap Nato supplies, police might have been forced to foot fuel bills from their own modest salaries, or be stuck idling in their offices. If such a crisis occurred a year from now when most marines have gone home as part of the phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, the impact on security in Garmsir could be devastating.
Blowse has spent his most recent deployment in Afghanistan scaling back Marines' security and logistical support to their Afghan allies, with the informal motto "let them see failure but not achieve it". He reasons that the Afghan security forces need to test their limits while the Marines are providing a safety net, because by this time next year, they are expected to be largely on their own, but says the fuel outage is more than the police can currently manage.
"Something has gone critically wrong at the higher levels, so if the aftermath of that is that police in the entire district stop operating for an extended period of time that would be kind of a critical failure that we don't want to allow to happen," he said.
"We certainly don't want to make it easy for them to just revert back to using our supplies, but we also don't want a huge setback such as them completely ceasing to operate during a certain time … In my eyes that would be achieving failure."
Problems with fuel are unlikely to go away; its scarcity and expense in a landlocked country with poor roads mean it is "like having normal money", according to one logistics officer. It has also attracted corruption, as a US government watchdog has pointed out in a string of reports.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warned a few months back that the department of defence cannot accurately account for $1.1bn worth of fuel given to the Afghan National Army over a period of years, and have announced plans to audit police logistics systems for fuel, because they suspect they may be vulnerable to the same problems.
"No single commodity is as important to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan as fuel, and no commodity is at such risk of being stolen or wasted," Special Inspector General John F Sopko was quoted saying in a recent report. "As the US and its coalition allies withdraw and transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces, US funded fuel will become even more vulnerable to waste through corruption and theft."
A spokesman for the coalition's regional headquarters in Helmand denied there had been a provincial-level halt in supplies, and said there were no allegations of fraud.
"The supply of fuel has not been switched off, I understand there have been delays due to the tightening up of accounting procedures," Lieutenant Colonel Martin Morris said in response to questions. There might be some shortages at the district level because the Ministry of Interior had not approved fuel requests, he added.
Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri