There’s a tunnel connecting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to the U.S. Agency for International Development office building across the street. It’s a popular — and safe — thoroughfare for the diplomats, accountants, Foreign Service officers and non-governmental agency workers involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Jeff Millslagle is walking through the tunnel in October 2011 when he sees a familiar face — DEA agent Tim Jones. They haven’t seen each other in a decade, since their days of closing marijuana grow houses and meth labs in Texas. In the mid-1990s, when Millslagle served as an FBI agent, the pair worked drug cases with violent crime connections around East Texas. But they’d been acquainted for years, first meeting in the 1980s at First Christian Church in downtown Tyler.
When Jones left for Washington to work at DEA headquarters in 2001, the pair lost contact. So they have the same question upon their meeting in Afghanistan — what are you doing here?
Jones is a DEA representative in Afghanistan. Law enforcement has taken him a long way from his high school, W.T White in Dallas, and his jobs with the Smith County Sheriff’s Department. After leaving Tyler, Jones coordinated High Intensity Drug Traffic Area programs across Texas and ran the entire program from D.C. He then pivoted to international work, with stints in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In 2007 he spent five months in Iraq as the DEA’s operations officer there. Now he’s in Afghanistan, the source of much of the world’s poppy plants and therefore the heart of the global heroin trade.
Millslagle is happy to see Jones, and not just for the Texas nostalgia. He just got into Afghanistan, working for a federal agency that most people have never heard of — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The acronym, SIGAR, is pronounced like you’d smoke it. Congress created the agency in 2008 to serve as a watchdog over the billions of dollars the United States has committed to securing and stabilizing Afghanistan. It’s a small agency with a vast beat — Washington has approved $113 billion to rebuild Afghanistan so far, and at least $11.5 billion more is on the way.
The U.S. government offloads its most difficult nation-building efforts to contractors. Although this might summon up visions of armed security guards — a la Blackwater in Iraq and the 13 Hours team in Benghazi, Libya — most of the contractors are not armed with anything but checkbooks backed by U.S. taxpayer money.
Proving the money has been spent well in this violent, impoverished nation is a daunting task, and waste and abuse are rampant. Watchdogs call projects that exist on paper but never happened “ghosts.” In Afghanistan ghost teachers staff ghost schools, ghost bridges connect ghost roads. There are entire ghost police forces.
Millslagle is opening a new SIGAR office at a forward operating base called Salerno, near the city of Khost, and he’s eager for allies. Much of SIGAR does relies on ad hoc partners — in Afghanistan, that means the military’s Criminal Investigation Division and services’ inspector generals. Any assistance from other agencies is useful, since they may have contacts, sources and hard-won insights. But the arrival of an inspector general can be met with resistance akin to internal affairs of a police department.
Millslagle needs all the help he can get, and Jones has a DEA contact at the base. This is law enforcement networking in a war zone. “It’s a sales job in the beginning,” Millslagle says. “By the end, they are usually pretty helpful.”
The underground meeting proves to be a turning point for both agents. In time, Jones and Millslagle will return to Texas in the employ of SIGAR, policing taxpayer money spent in Afghanistan from an unlikely perch in Tyler.
SIGAR’s beat spans the globe, but the scope of the corruption in Afghanistan crosses oceans and continents and even Dallas' doorstep: In February, George Green of Carrollton, pleaded guilty to bribery charges related to his work in Afghanistan.
“You can’t just open the coffers,” Millslagle says. “Money attracts bad people.”
FOB Salerno, 15 miles from the Pakistani border, sits on a 4000-foot-high plain. Mountains ring the base, and the air at their peaks is so thin that it takes an airplane or a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter to clear them. On the ground, travel is no easier. A single road winds through a pass in the mountains, connecting the cities of Khost and Gardez. Any single route in Afghanistan has ample places for extortion by anyone with a gun. That includes local officials, warlords, Taliban insurgents and Afghan troops.
Millslagle establishes his office, gets the local update from his DEA contact and begins building cases. The situation at Salerno is emblematic of the effort in Afghanistan — well-meaning ideas from U.S. government agencies that end as epic examples of misguided waste. “You can have good intentions, and they do when they start a program,” Millslagle says. “But sometimes they want to live in a vacuum. That’s how you end up with people building a bridge where there is no road.”
Here’s how it works. A big company wins a government contract and right away (or even before) divides the contract into subcontracts. These subcontractors, which are not always in the United States, are often the ones who then deal with Afghans, who in turn also hire subcontractors and service providers. The money trail can be lost in a bewildering number of rabbit holes.
The burn pits of Salerno are an example of a good project gone awry. For years, FOB Salerno torched sewage and food waste in open-air trenches until lawsuits and health claims led the Pentagon to ban them. FOB Salerno received $5 million worth of incinerators, delivered by a Turkish company. The equipment was missing parts and leaked hydraulic fluid. The contract to buy them never included money to set up and maintain them. At the end of the day, Millslagle says, the Afghans cut the machinery apart and sold them as scrap.
Other Salerno cases involve textbook corruption and theft. The American war effort and reconstruction run on fuel. One Government Accountability Office study from 2009 states that each forward operating base in Afghanistan requires a daily minimum of 300 gallons of diesel fuel.
This steady inflow opens doors for corrupt drivers, and Salerno is no different. Millslagle soon found enormous amounts of fuel missing. “It was a badly written contract to start,” he says. “They allowed for 80 percent of fuel to be delivered.” Some allowances are usually made for spillage or evaporation, but 20 percent opened the door for routine theft. The SIGAR agents say that drivers had dipsticks measured to exactly portion out the fuel they could steal. Other trucks have secret bladders with phony seals, so they can pump fuel into hidden areas right in front of observers.
Drivers also cut deals with U.S. troops to steal even more fuel and equipment. Millslagle finds that 100,000 gallons a month are missing from Salerno, and partners with Army CID find out why. Three soldiers have taken cash for access to the fuel and moved on to accepting hash as payment. The investigation includes surveillance of the drivers and installation of tracking devices on vehicles. This tradecraft leads investigators to a gas station near Salerno.
Where normally just a search warrant signed by an Afghan judge could gain entrance, U.S. law enforcement in Afghanistan must also turn to the U.S. military to keep them safe. So the investigation includes something more like a raid. Permission from the government, coordinating with the military and preparing a case all take patience. “Everything is harder over there, everything takes more time,” Millslagle says. “I call it the rule of sixes. Anything that takes six hours will take six days.”
At the gas station, ringed by troops, Millslagle is amazed to find stacks of 55 gallon drums filled with stolen fuel and more than a $100,000 worth of pilfered U.S. equipment, including shipping containers loaded with gear. The Americans arrest the implicated U.S. troops, and the Afghans arrest their nationals.
The U.S. troops are found guilty and sentenced to serve time, first in FOB Salerno and later in military prison in Fort Leavenworth. The Afghans involved may or may not pay a price. Those who face justice in Afghanistan can be punished severely or not at all — lose a hand or walk away free. Once suspects get into the Afghan system, SIGAR agents say they typically don’t know what happens.
Some Afghans known to be corrupt change their names, acquire fake ID cards and go back into business with the Americans. Millslagle busts one such Afghan peddling defective barriers at FOB Salerno, only to find he’s bidding again under a new name. The cellular phone number is the same, and he persuades the Army to ban the new company as well.
On June 8, 2012, Mawlawi Sahib Shamsullah drove a truck through a perimeter and detonated the 2000 pounds of explosives inside. More than a dozen insurgents flooded through the gap, causing havoc until they were gunned down. Seven civilians are killed, along with two ISAF soldiers and 14 insurgents. One hundred people are wounded. The Taliban takes credit, but it's more likely the work of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban spinoff linked to al Qaeda.
Millslagle wanders the scene after the attack, seeing the collapsed dining hall and PX where he’s visited nearly every day since arriving, but he’s not deterred. Soon he’ll re-up for another SIGAR tour in Afghanistan, and move to a new city. But this isn’t the last attack he’ll experience.
In late 2012 the SIGAR agent transfers from FOB Salerno to the city of Herat. His base of operations is a new U.S. consulate, built downtown. Herat's existence stems from its placement on the so-called Silk Road trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Millslagle is awakened at 5:30 a.m. on September 13, 2013, with the sensation of flying into a wall. Outside the consulate, the main gate and several for-hire guards have been immolated by a truck bomb. A cadre of Taliban fighters is attacking, some from sniper perches and others rushing through the breached gate.
He opens his eyes to see his room in disarray — the blast curtain has absorbed some debris, but the shockwave from the explosion swept through the building, shattering glass, bowing doors and tipping chairs. Millslagle grabs his 9 mm pistol and rushes to do the job the risk security officers have given him — help escort diplomats and workers to a designated rally point. So he starts kicking in doors and clearing rooms under the strobes of the damaged emergency lights.
Bullets strike the walls around him. A Taliban sniper, housed in a nearby building, peppers the consulate with rifle fire. Eventually, he runs headlong into in-rushing Navy SEALs who quickly set up defenses and kill the sniper. Millslagle then takes up his position behind an M249 squad automatic weapon, guarding a back door for three hours. "Fortunately for them, and for me, no one tried to come through," he says. The attack fades and the building is evacuated.
It's time to leave Afghanistan. Millslagle has a calm demeanor, but he scowls when he thinks about Herat. "There's this feeling that there's unfinished business," he says. "There's little or no SIGAR presence in Herat. There's no one watching."
After mandatory post traumatic stress treatment — "which I found very helpful," he says — Millslagle comes back to Texas. SIGAR officials want to keep the now-decorated agent on the job. He can go to Kabul, Washington or work from home in his native state. The choice is clear, and by November 2013 he's bouncing around the southern United States chasing documents and gathering witness testimony from his old stomping grounds in Tyler. In time, John Bales, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, offers SIGAR an office, and Millslagle moves in.
There's someone else ready to take on new work as well. Tim Jones is ready to leave the DEA.
His ride has been interesting enough to give him and Millslagle a cops-at-war bond. In Afghanistan he got caught in a 20-hour siege of the embassy. Insurgents infiltrated the capitol and used suicide vests and rocket propelled grenades to kill seven and wound 19. The operation is yet another sign that the insurgency is, contrary to statements from the White House, not ebbing and the central government’s grip on the nation is weak.
Embassy staff sought refuge in the very tunnel where Jones met Millslagle, with no water or bathrooms. But Jones had a better vantage. During crises, civilians take shelter but law enforcement officers have jobs defending the facility. When the attack came, loudspeakers blaring, “This is not a drill, this is not a drill.” The DEA agent manned a guard tower. From there he could watch the remotely-controlled machine guns atop a pair of Army armored vehicles firing down the street at RPG-armed insurgents. “The tracers sort of reminded me of a fireworks display,” he says now, “at the end, when everything’s going off at once. It was quite a view.”
After returning to the Texas with DEA, Jones seeks a change of pace and working for SIGAR in Tyler seems a perfect fit. "I retired from the DEA, and the next day I swore in as a SIGAR agent," Jones says. "And it's the most challenging thing I've done in my career."
Tyler is about 7,700 miles from Afghanistan. With 100,000 residents, it's too large to be called a small town, but this nondescript city could very well be the least likely place to find an outpost of an agency whose mandate spans the globe.
A tall black building stands on one corner of the downtown square, across from the courthouse. The building’s lobby contains a guide to tenants: mostly attorneys and a few communications companies. It’s not listed, but one floor contains offices of federal agencies that operate in northeast Texas. Down the hall to one corner, past the receptionist’s bulletproof booth and an X-ray machine, is a roomy office with the SIGAR seal on the door.
Inside are two desks, facing each other. Jones’ desk is on the right. A water bottle with a Russian figurine sits on his desk, a reminder of the 59-year-old’s counter narcotic work in Russia.
Millslagle, 56, sits at the left hand desk, under a banner given to him by the 187th Airborne. His desk is adorned with photos of his family in the front, and behind him are certificates including a State Department Award for Heroism. The government mandates retirement for federal law enforcement officers at age 57, but SIGAR has a waiver to keep experienced lawmen on the job.
SIGAR has a vast mandate but fewer than 200 full time staff, most of them in the contractor-haven of Virginia. There are only 29 SIGAR agents in Afghanistan, but these days that makes them the best staffed U.S. law enforcement agency in the nation.
The SIGAR office in Tyler, with its staff of two, is not meant to police Texas, but chase leads throughout the United States and beyond. It’s often cheaper to dispatch Jones and Millslagle, who tend to drive to locations in marathon road trips, rather than fly someone from Virginia. Using Skype and telephones, they can locate witnesses and secure their cooperation. They’ve done quick trips to Afghanistan on the cases that require an agent’s knowledge to do interviews.
SIGAR agents are badge-and-gun federal law officers, and in Afghanistan they carry long guns and sidearms, often rolling with U.S. troops to execute search warrants on missions that appear more like military raids. “It takes two or three hours to execute a search warrant,” Millslagle says. “But I’ve been on cases where the military says it's too dangerous to go, and we can only stay 20 minutes. So we didn’t go.”
But the idea that these are jet-setting lawmen who ride around war zones in armored cars is only partially correct. Much of the job is tracing money trails, and even harder, money trails with origins in government contracting.
Millslagle mentions that he suffers from eye damage from reading volumes of dense reports. “I have a single case with more than 100,000 documents,” he says. “That’s not pages, that’s documents. And one of those alone has 261 pages. But you have to read all of it. You’re just trying to find that nugget.”
That “nugget” is a piece of information that can connect a suspect to the funds they took. They have to find the money, and then they have to find the people who spent it — or stole it. The agents say that finding witnesses is more like hunting fugitives, with everywhere in the world to look. “If the people we are looking at are not Afghans, we go where they are,” Jones says. “Last week I was in South Africa. It can be weeks until we see each other in this office.”
Nation building in a virtually lawless war zone, which has the infrastructure in areas that's akin to the 18th century's, is a recipe for inefficiency. “One of the biggest things we see is the waste,” says Jones. “It’s just piss-poor planning.”
But the nation is also notoriously crooked — most groups that rank corruption put Afghanistan at top of the list, second only to North Korea and Somalia. And with hundreds of billions of international money piped into that environment, abuse can be epic. One former International Security Assistance commander, Gen. John Allen, in 2014 told the Senate that the Taliban are "an annoyance compared to the scope and magnitude of corruption with which [Afghanistan] must contend."
The pair doesn’t share the same cases, but they are partners. Jones and Millslagle know each other’s workloads and buttress each other when things get frustrating, which happens frequently. Politically connected Afghans charged with corruption often walk, contractors with bad reputations for waste get new awards and crooks plead to lesser charges in courtrooms around the world.
"I'm blessed to have a partner here," Millslagle says. “When you hit a wall and slide down to the bottom, it’s good to have someone there to pick you up."
Soon after he joins SIGAR, Jones meets Millslagle fortuitously at the airport in Tyler, each with their families in tow on separate trips. The partners peel off for a quick conversation. "I told him the truth, that I was thinking of going back over," Millslagle says.
"And I said, 'What are you, crazy?" adds Jones.
"And just like that, I snapped out of it," Millslagle finishes.
In 2015, on an icy morning in November, Millslagle joins a group of federal agents to serve a search warrant on the Carrollton home of government contractor George E. Green. The SIGAR agent's job during the visit is to help process the evidence.
Green's resume, published in 2014 on PostJobFree.com, offers a glimpse into the life of a globe-trotting, for-hire nation builder. His works are in the oil patch, buying material and managing inventory for energy projects in Texas, Colorado and Indonesia. His taste for international business grows when he lands a job with Wylie-based Sanden International, which builds automotive air conditioning compressors and sells them around the globe.
Green goes to Iraq in May 2005 to work with the firm KBR, where he oversees “annual spends in excess of $680 million.” His experience in energy comes in handy in Iraq, since he leads “procurement of oil and gas revitalization on- and offshore including facilities, pipelines, production, storage and test sites.”
His resume reads like a who’s who of contractors who rebuild war torn countries: DynCorp and the Sandi Group in Iraq, Combat Support Associates in Kuwait and Creative Associates International in Yemen. Each position put him in charge of accounts measured in the hundreds of millions.
In October 2010, Green finds Afghanistan. After a short stint with the privately held development group in Kabul, he joins International Resources Group (IRG). There, he serves as director of contracts and procurement for the Afghanistan Clean Energy Project. His resume says he “implemented protocols to improve transparency and compliance while increasing burn rate.”
Burn rate, in government contractor parlance, is the pace at which the organization spends money. That’s one chief way NGOs and contractors judge their success. The higher the burn rate, the better. Checking contractor work often becomes secondary to spending the money, and harder to safely quantify.
On September 8, 2009, USAID signs a $13 million contract with IRG to provide “long-term energy solutions in targeted areas of Afghanistan.” The main goals of the contract: build solar-powered streetlights, wind-powered water pumps and solar hot water heaters. By April 2012, that amount has been boosted to $23.9 million.
In 2014, SIGAR audits the program and finds that IRG billed $16. 3 million in questionable costs. That’s two-thirds the total. “IRG could not provide the cost, GPS location, or complete budget expenditures by site,” the audit report notes.
Green spent his first tenure in Afghanistan wrapped up with this troubled program. He is never mentioned in any reports or charged with anything, and IRG faced no sanctions. By the time SIGAR looked at the books, Green had moved on to another job in Afghanistan. This time, instead of waste, Green is implicated in outright graft.
At the end of 2011 — about the same time that Millslagle and Jones met in the tunnel — Green joins the largest nonprofit contractor in Afghanistan, International Relief and Development (IRD). IRD has received more than $2.4 billion from the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2007 to 2015.
Green works in Kandahar as director for contracts, procurement and grants for the organization’s Southern Regional Agricultural Development Program. Handing out seeds and conducting seminars on farming may not seem like an urgent geopolitical need, but Washington sees it as a fundamental tool in taming Afghanistan.
Green’s job is pretty simple: find subcontractors to take the seed and distribute it to the farmers to wean them off of poppy production. But by March, four months after arriving, he is shaking down Afghans for bribes.
“There’s so much money, people like Green get tempted,” Millslagle says. “There’s little or no oversight by his company or USAID, and pressure to get the money out there.”
The scheme, laid out in his indictment in federal court, is not complicated. Green, as the authority who dispenses contracts for Afghans, is in the perfect position to impose pay-to-play fees on an Afghan company bidding to provide farming equipment to farmers.
In March and April 2012 Afghans wire thousands of dollars to Green’s account and to a sympathetic car dealer in Severino Marche, Italy. (The money to the dealership is “for use and benefit of defendant,” the indictment says. It's unclear if the funds go to buy an automobile for resale or to a dealer simply willing to hide the transaction.) An Afghan named HW also wired money to Italy and also delivered $51,000 in cash to Dubai, where Green picked it up. He and an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator entered the United States with tens of thousands of dollars.
Now, Green has to stash the loot. Banks are required to report cash deposits of more than $10,000, so he and that co-conspirator break up the bribe money and, over the course of a few months, deposit smaller amounts into bank accounts and credit card.
Green leaves Afghanistan in May 2012, but the indictment accuses him of continuing Afghan shakedowns from his home in Carrollton. No longer under IRD contract, he nevertheless tries to solicit money from Afghans for preferential treatment in getting new contracts, the indictment says. "In truth and fact, as Defendant Green then well knew, he was unemployed living in Texas, had no such power and said pretenses and representations were false and fraudulent."
According to his resume, Green soon finds a new gig overseas. He goes back to Iraq to work for years with Raytheon’s technical services corporation. His job is to create and teach courses on good government to Iraqis. His lessons, according to his resume, include “finance, national procurement processes, international commercial/military contracting, program management.”
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, IRD has fallen under suspicion. News reports chronicled how goods meant for Afghan farmers were sold in Pakistan. (In 2009, the company had been accused of creating ghost jobs in Iraq, but they got more USAID contracts in Afghanistan anyway.) A Washington Post investigation highlights the organization’s $1.1 million expense for staff retreats at exclusive resorts and big bonuses to the group’s founders.
In January 2015 USAID suspends the organization, citing “findings regarding IRD’s financial controls, management, and lack of present responsibility.” It’s lauded as a necessary pushback against a contractor force that’s out of control. “USAID has a zero tolerance policy for mismanagement of American taxpayer funds and will take every measure at our disposal to recover these funds,” the agency says in a statement.
But by June, USAID had lost a lawsuit filed by IRD and, forced by a U.S district court, retracts the suspension. The nonprofit argued that only bad press fueled the suspension and that a new CEO, massive restructuring and layoffs have solved the problem.
The judge says that USAID disregarded protocol and sides with the nonprofit. “IRD should be considered as never having been suspended,” USAID says in a mandatory release.” All mention of IRD’s suspension is struck from the System for Award Management — a database established by Congress that enables officials to evaluate eligibility for grants or awards.
Still, IRD changes its name to Blumont and relocates to Madison, Wisconsin. "There are new markets we want to go into that IRD wasn't in,” CEO Roger Ervin tells the Milwaukee Business Journal. “And markets [that] IRD was in that we no longer will be working with."
IRD has slipped the noose, but the investigation of its former contract employee, George Green, is just picking up speed. The search warrant has revealed how he moved the money around, and testimony links him to the bribery schemes. The office of John Bales, the U.S. attorney who gave Millslagle space in Tyler, and the Justice Department's criminal division lawyers are prosecuting the case.
In February 2016 (a month after IRD announced its new name) Green appears in court to plead guilty to bribery and conspiracy to hide the proceeds. He gets 46 months in prison.
He only cops to one charge. The plea nullifies charges associated with $15,000 that he allegedly routed to his wife, via that Italian car dealer. Green only has to return the $15,000. The feds, lacking any connection to crimes, also give back the materials recovered from his home during the search warrant. That material, law enforcement sources say, includes a firearm collection and precious metals.
Green is doing his time at minimum security Seagoville Correctional, a dorm-style federal institution. For agents of SIGAR, seeing anyone face any jail time at all is a “big win.” But it’s impossible not to speculate how much more could be behind Green’s career. If he had taken bribes before, that amount will never be known.
“Like any plea deal, it’s a negotiation,” Millslagle will only say.
The future of SIGAR is uncertain. There's plenty of work to be done, with billions in U.S. money yet to be spent, but the nation may not be safe for investigators.
President Ashraf Ghani has concrete steps to fight corruption in Afghanistan. He has canceled crooked fuel contracts and invites SIGAR to attend the weekly meetings of the National Procurement Commission. This stands in stark contrast to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who literally let corruption-linked officials out of jails.
“The government appears to be getting better with this new regime,” Jones says. “On the back side of that, the security situation is not as good as it was.”
The Obama administration has closed U.S. bases and withdrawn thousands of troops, and that prompts other federal agencies to exit since they depend on the Pentagon to keep them safe. “It’s not just the military,” Millslagle says. “They are all drawing down. Everyone’s leaving.”
Gone are the days when SIGAR special agents can ride around town on their own, albeit in up-armored Land Rovers and carrying automatic weapons. “SIGAR staff on duty there ... are generally confined to the U.S. embassy and must take a helicopter even to get to the airport because the roads are so unsafe,” says SIGAR head John Spoko. “Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel, whether they are managing projects or responsible for oversight functions.”
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A reduced presence means fewer eyes on the way foreign money is being spent. In the meantime, another $11 billion has been approved by Congress to support Afghanistan. Along with the well-intentioned will come the crooks. “Are there other George Greens out there?” Millslagle says. “You bet.”
Millslagle and Jones are not bitter and do not often air any cynicism to strangers. They speak often and fondly of brave Afghans who risk their lives to testify, of local interpreters and investigators who spearhead investigations and of diplomats who want to help the shattered nation.
But their unsmiling faces speak volumes when they are asked about Washington’s impulse to throw money at foreign policy without safeguards. “Maybe there will be lessons learned,” Jones says. “They’ll be good for the next war.”