Center for Strategic Communication

Army Spc. Louis Phay strings barbed wire to block off a culvert on Afghanistan’s Highway 601. Insurgents use holes in the roads to hide homemade bombs. Photo: Flickr/U.S. Army

Contract fraud in Afghanistan has yielded a major unexpected threat to U.S. troops from homemade bombs, according to the U.S.’ contracting watchdog in the country. And the watchdog agency considers the threat so dire that it took the rare step of tipping its hand on an active criminal investigation to warn the military command in Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, is warning that “potentially significant contract fraud” from a $361,680 deal with an Afghan company may have led troops to falsely believe that metal bars placed over water drainage systems and roadside holes are effective against implanted insurgent bombs. A letter Sopko sent to Marine Gens. John Allen, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and James Mattis, commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast and South Asia, says a “large number” of the so-called “culvert denial systems” were “not installed or were installed in a defective manner.” (.pdf)

The denial systems aren’t sophisticated. Typically, they’re metal bars placed over the crevasses, sometimes latticed together. The military likes them because insurgents place bombs inside those crevasses, out of view of U.S. troops — and often out of reach of the heavy, cumbersome, robotic bomb detection systems the troops use. The military hired an unspecified Afghan company to place those bars over the holes in February 2011, but Sopko calls the firm’s work “ineffective and susceptible to compromise by insurgents seeking to replace IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices.

But the shoddy or non-existent culvert denial systems may not be limited to one crooked or incompetent company at work in a specific part of the country. Sopko’s letter, dated Oct. 10, warns, “We are concerned this problem may be more widely spread throughout Afghanistan.”

The letter does not say if any troops have actually lost their lives or their limbs relying on the firm to fill the roadside ditches. A spokesman for Sopko, Phil LaVelle, didn’t specify whether the threat has manifested. LaVelle also declined to specify which U.S. agency awarded the $361,680 contract to the sketchy Afghan firm.

But the letter unavoidably tips the company that it’s the subject of a criminal investigation — something that oversight agencies rarely do. “In this case,” LaVelle says, “the information that was developed was obviously urgent and life threatening.”

Homemade bombs are a maddening problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan. They often rely on chemicals for their explosives; use minimal metal elements; and avoid remote, signal-based detonation — all of which frustrate U.S. detection tools, many of which were developed for the different kinds of IEDs used in Iraq. Insurgents launched 600 bomb attacks on U.S. troops in August 2012 alone, slightly more than they did in August 2009, although the Pentagon task force to stop the bombs says that the insurgent weapons have been growing less effective.

If the investigation determines that the Afghan company doesn’t have ties to any U.S. nationals, it may be up to the Afghan justice system to act on Sopko’s findings. His agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over Afghans, but can recommend charges to the Justice Department if U.S. civilians are involved or to the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if service personnel are in on it. A search of a federal contracting database shows at least five other contracts have been awarded by the Army to assist in various ways with constructing culvert denial systems.