Incidentally, SNC-Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering company working on the dam, also has the contract to erect the Toronto G20 security fence. They occupy an important niche in Canada’s military-industrial complex.
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Mitch Potter, Toronto Star
June 9, 2010
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN–Canadian officials repeatedly ignored warnings against the dangers of tying Canada’s signature project in Afghanistan to a controversial security firm with close ties to the Karzai regime, the Toronto Star has learned.
The red flags over the hiring of Watan Risk Management as Afghan security partner on the $50-million drive to rebuild Kandahar’s broken Dahla Dam irrigation system include “an extensive paper trail of warning emails” more than one year ago from Canadian advisers to the project, according to one source with intimate knowledge of the deal.
Two other sources independently confirmed the paper trail over the course of three-week Toronto Star probe. One email, sources said, goes so far as to warn government overseers of Canadian aid and the contracted builder, Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, “If Watan takes over, what will you do when an investigative reporter finds out Canada’s biggest project is tied to these people?”
Watan, headed by Rashid Popal, a cousin to President Hamid Karzai and a former convicted drug felon, has fallen under the scrutiny of U.S. investigators amid allegations the firm may be colluding with insurgents to maximize profits from lucrative contracts to protect NATO supply convoys in Afghanistan. The company vehemently denies the allegations.
Watan was last month stripped of its privilege of escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar due to Watan’s alleged heavy-handed role in at least one bloody confrontation involving Afghan civilians. Insiders say tensions between Watan and NATO were earlier exacerbated when a security team working for the company became entwined in a gunpoint standoff with British soldiers.
But less than two weeks into the ban, Watan was back riding shotgun with NATO – a consequence of a crippling supply breakdown that saw more than 1,000 trucks stalled on the highway and at least one deadly attack in which a NATO truck was overturned and burned.
Insiders knowledgeable about Canada’s troubled Dahla Dam project say the convoy controversy is a textbook example of the culture of fear that emanates from the Watan group – and by extension, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of the president, and overwhelming regarded as Kandahar’s foremost power broker.
One private Western security adviser said, “If I were Afghan, I too would join the insurgency in a nanosecond. Compared to the Karzai group, the Taliban comes across as Robin Hood.”
On paper, there is no apparent link between Watan and Ahmed Wali Karzai, or “AWK,” as he is known to NATO and Kandaharis alike. But on the ground, the connection is screamingly obvious – in the centre of Kandahar City, just south of the Red Mosque, the compounds are AWK, Watan and the Dahla Dam’s rebuilder, SNC-Lavalin, are nestled together behind a ring of six Afghan police checkpoints.
It was inside that complex that a security fiasco unfolded on Feb. 20. A “Mexican standoff” between private Canadian security officials in the employ of the Canadian-led construction consortium and members of Watan Risk Management ended in the Canadians being shipped home – an event described as “the day Canada lost control” of the project, insiders said.
Now back in Canada, former security managers Curtis Desrosiers and Mike Hill are refusing comment on the matter. Also declining comment is Alan Bell, a Toronto-based security consultant with Globe Risk International, who resigned his position one day after the standoff and returned to Canada.
Other sources speaking on background said witnesses to the confrontation are reluctant to go public amid fear that SNC-Lavalin “will hit the Montgomery Burns button and unleash a team of lawyers” — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fictitious corporate czar from the The Simpsons.
Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Canada accepted the Toronto Star’s account of the standoff in an interview Wednesday.
“It is factual, it is valid, it is there – there is no way to dispute it,” Ambassador Jawed Ludin said.
“But my worry is that Canadians will be left with the impression that these bloody Afghans don’t want the Dahla Dam project to proceed – and nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’m not arguing that some people don’t have an interest in continuing the conflict. I just want to emphasize that for Afghanistan and for Kandahar in particular, there is no single project more important than this. CIDA must sort out some things on its end because we are talking about the money of Canadian taxpayers. And we as Afghans must sort some things out on our end – but in the end, we must complete this project to show the people of Kandahar they are not mere observers to some kind of security game.”
Liberal MP Bob Rae echoed the ambassador’s sentiments. Rae told the Toronto Star’s Allan Woods that there are “significant allegations which we need to get to the bottom of” – but they should not overshadow the critical importance of the Dahla Dam project.
Rae said the “challenge of the powerbroker structure in Afghanistan and the way these power brokers gain control over provision of private security and civil security” came up during his most recent trek to Afghanistan, when he joined a parliamentary delegation to review the Canadian effort.
“But I think the point I want to stress is we’re not working in downtown Ottawa here, we’re working under difficult conditions where there are existing political and power structures which are not always transparent and not always clear and it’s tough. It’s difficult to work in that context. But I think that we have an obligation to keep trying and to keep pushing ahead and keep moving forward and doing the best we can to make the kind of progress that needs to be made.”
Officials with the SNC-Lavalin/Hydrosult joint venture refused to directly address questions about Watan and the armed standoff of Feb. 20. Instead, SNC-Lavalin released a three-paragraph statement Wednesday emphasizing that despite the complexity of the project and the “political instability” of the region, the Dahla Dam work will be done.
“As with all our projects, there is no room for compromise on safety or on quality, simply the expectation that the project will be, and is being, successfully completed and on budget,” the SNC statement said.
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