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US Army Fuel Smuggling Ring Likely Helped Fund The Taliban Insurgency

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Late one night in February 2011, a group of U.S. soldiers and civilians on a dusty airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan conspired to steal and sell jet fuel to a mysterious Afghan contractor. Little did they know that night that the scheme would evolve into a months-long racket that likely ended up funding the Taliban’s ongoing insurgency.

Army Sergeant Kevin Bilal Abdullah, Spc. Stephanie Charboneau and civilian contractors Jonathan Hightower and Christopher Weaver helped an Afghan contractor smuggle over $1,225,000-worth of JP-8 jet fuel off Forward Operating Base Fenty from February to May 2010.

JP-8 is a standard jet fuel utilized by U.S. Air Force aircraft, meaning the fuel ring’s actions likely jeopardized the Air Force’s ability to fly missions in support of U.S. troops, putting their lives in danger.

“Fuel theft not only robs U.S. taxpayers and damages the reconstruction effort, but military operations can be jeopardized when needed fuel is stolen or otherwise diverted,” said the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in a report released Wednesday. “Impending operations may force a commander to accept what fuel he can and forgo accountability processes to ensure mission success.”

To make matters worse, the illicit sale of fuel on the Afghan black market is considered to be a primary funding stream for the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups, according to SIGAR.

The conspiracy was a fairly simple operation, but clandestine in nature. Abdullah oversaw the distribution of fuel in the Nangarhar province, which gave him and his fellow conspirators access to the fuel and the papers required to transport it. Working in conjunction with the Afghan contractor, the the group would fill 3,000 gallon trucks, known locally as “jingle trucks” due to their flare and adornments. Abdullah would then forge the transportation movement requests (TMRs) required to move fuel from the base to various locations in the region and provide them to the Afghan contractor, allowing the drivers of the trucks to leave the base with the fuel with no problem.

While Charboneau, Abdullah, Hightower and Weaver would eventually be caught and charged for their crimes, another group of soldiers on FOB Fenty continued the operation just months later.

Army Sgt. Regionald Dixon, Sgt. 1st Class Marvin Ware and later Spc. Larry Emmons engaged in a similar fuel smuggling operation involving forged TMR documents and an Afghan contractor from December 2011 to February 2012. A mysterious Afghan contractor paid the group $6,000 for each 3,000 gallon truck full of fuel. While investigators have reported the two schemes were separate, it is unclear whether or not both groups were bribed by the same contractor. The second group was eventually caught and prosecuted.

A third fuel smuggling case was recently discovered in 2016. Former Army Spc. Sheldon Morgan pleaded guilty to aiding an Afghan contractor in stealing and smuggling fuel out of FOB Fenty. It is unclear whether Morgan was involved or aware of the other two groups, though the dates of the crimes do coincide.

At the time of Ware’s indictment, SIGAR chief John Sopko noted his office had recovered $1.6 million in illegal proceeds and $20 million in civil penalties related to fuel smuggling cases.

Fuel is considered “liquid gold” in Afghanistan’s notorious black market. The Defense Logistics Agency has supplied more than 2.5 billion gallons of fuel, worth more than $12 billion, to U.S. personnel and the Afghan military as of September 2014.

“Almost all the large fuel theft schemes investigated by SIGAR included U.S. military personnel and, in some cases, contract civilian personnel,” noted SIGAR’s report.

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