By Abdul Maqsud Azizi
KABUL, Afghanistan — It appears that millions of dollars paid by international forces to rent a piece of land in Logar province for use as an airstrip went to six well-connected individuals, and possibly the Taliban, rather than the land’s rightful owner, the Afghan government.
That so much money could easily go astray should come as no surprise, given that corruption is rife from the highest to lowest levels of government.
According to the province’s former governor, the payments were made in 2009 when a Provincial Reconstruction Team — a joint military and civilian force deployed to pacify restive provinces such as Logar —decided to build an airstrip, along with several buildings and associated roads, is a desert area just south of the provincial capital of Poll-e Alam.
Atiqullah Ludin, who served as provincial governor at the time, said six local individuals, he refused to identify, laid claim to the 53-sqare kilometer tract of land, despite the fact that they were unable to produce credible documents showing ownership of the land.
The six reportedly received $2.6 million in rent for the first year, with a portion of that going to the local Taliban.
“In 2009, the intelligence agency in Logar reported to me that after the six men received $2.6 million in rent for the first year from the Americans, they gave the Taliban $500, 000,” Ludin said.
A NATO spokesman in Logar, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said the agency is still unable to determine who actually owned the land — the individuals or the state.
Questions about the land transfer first arose as far back as 2010, when Abdul Hakim Sulaimankhel, chairman of the provincial council, wrote to Ludin, saying, “The governor’s office should immediately arrest those who have seized the land, and the money the six individuals have received from the Americans should be retrieved and deposited in the government treasury.” In fact, Ludin did act when initially told about the $2.6 million deal, ordering four of the six recipients of the rent to be arrested. A few days later, however, he ordered the four released.
Ludin initially claimed that he had the four arrested because the deed they possessed was invalid and had been improperly authorized by a previous governor, Abdullah Wardak “Anything that went on happened in Abdullah Wardak’s time, and I am completely unaware of it,” he said.
Wardak was killed by a roadside bomb in 2008.
Ludin was less forthcoming when asked to explain why he had the four suspects released.
At first, he insisted that it was the local prosecutor who had freed the men. But when confronted with documents showing his signature on the release forms, the former governor would only say, “I was only doing my duty.”
Ludin insists he did nothing wrong, and that allegations made against him were part of a conspiracy. “I haven’t taken a bribe from anyone. I have only implemented the law,” he said.
At least one individual was willing to step forward and acknowledge receiving payment for the land.
Awal Khan, a tribal elder from the area, confirmed that he received payment. “It’s rent for our property,” he said, before telling a reporter to “go away.” And it appears that some of the 200 families that live in the area where the airstrip is to be built also received a share of the payments.
One farmer, Lotfullah, 36, said he received $18,000 four years ago “because that was my share.” Others got less — between $5,000 and $7,000 — he said.
He’d never seen so much money in his life, he said. And he’s never seen such an amount again. The $18,000 was the first, and last, payment.
Provincial officials say the matter is still under investigation.