Threats, lies and Facebook taunts in Afghanistan
(Mohammad Shoaib Barakzai, left, Jalaluddin Saeed, center, and Rafi Ahmadi, right, say an American company fled Afghanistan without paying their construction companies more than $2 million for work on projects around the company.)
Mohammed Shoaib Barakzai wasn't so thrilled to drive into rural Kandahar Province to check on a $15,000 wall building project at FOB Ramrod, one of the many US bases that dot the southern Afghanistan countryside.
But Barazkai had been assured by the US firm that hired him that success at Ramrod would lead to $40 million more in business.
It was a gamble - and one that nearly cost Barakzai his life.
As he left Ramrod in a Toyota Corolla, Taliban insurgents on motorcycles attacked. Barazai retreated to Ramrod as bullets shattered the rear window and peppered the car.
Barakzai's risk led him deeper into a relationship with an American businesswoman named Sarah Lee who abruptly shuttered her Bennett-Fouch construction firm in Afghanistan last year and left behind a pool of irate Afghan businessmen who say she still owes them more than $2 million for work they did building US bases.
“Because of Bennett-Fouch we lost a lot of trust in the market," Barakzai told McClatchy. "If there is a $1 million project, 100 people work on it. Sarah Lee not only damaged the business of her clients, she hurt the hearts of hundreds of poor Afghans.”
On Wednesday, nearly a year after Lee closed Bennett-Fouch and her related firm, K5 Global, the US military announced that it was temporarily blacklisting Lee's companies while they continue to investigate the case.
Since taking command of coalition forces in Afghanistan, US Gen. David Petraeus has sought to combat insidious corruption infused in the multi-million-dollar construction business in the country.
"With insufficient oversight, it is likely that some of those funds will unintentionally fuel corruption, finance insurgent organizations, strengthen criminal patronage networks, and undermine our efforts in Afghanistan," Petraeus wrote in special contracting guidelines he issued last fall.
But the Afghan businessmen still trying to get their money from working with Lee said the US military and US Embassy did little to help them until it was far too late.
"This is meaningless," said Jalaluddin Saeed, president of Associates in Development, an Afghan construction company that produced invoices showing that it's owed more than $1.3 million by the U.S. firms. "They already ran away with the money after committing the crime."
Bennett-Fouch touted itself in Afghanistan as an international construction company with 1,600 employees that was managed by disabled U.S. veterans.
K5 Global, which said it had secured more than $40 million in military contracts, vowed on its website to "become one of the U.S. government's most trusted and reliable contractors."
Afghan business records show that Bennett-Fouch and K5 Global are both owned by Lee, a 45-year-old U.S. businesswoman whose construction companies have worked for a few years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. military said American laws prevented the government from paying subcontractors directly and suggested that the Afghan companies could pursue their claims in U.S. courts.
"It really reflects badly on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan," said Barakzai, head of the Barak Durani Construction and Logistics Co., which he says is owed more than $150,000. "It's 100 percent the U.S. government's responsibility to take her and hand her over to the Afghan government."
While Lee was sometimes slow to pay her bills, Barakzai said, the problems escalated in the fall of 2009 as rumors began to circulate that Lee was preparing to leave Afghanistan without paying her bills.
In e-mails given to McClatchy by the Afghan businessmen, Lee repeatedly blamed the U.S. military for not paying her so she could pay the Afghan subcontractors.
"I can never say I am sorry enough for this delay or the impact it has caused you or any of the operations," according to a Jan. 12, 2010, e-mail from Lee's account. "I am more than sure that US Govt will soon realize that the prices will jump exponentially due to the lack of payment in a timely manner from their side."
Suspicious of her claims, Saeed tracked down invoices proving that Lee had been paid by the U.S. military.
"We are all compromised by this inaction by the US military and it is very difficult to move forward," according to another e-mail from Lee's account.
Saeed warned Lee that his vendors were threatening to have him arrested or killed if the bills weren't paid.
"You have my solemn word that all debt shall be cleared that is owed to you and I do not have to run from anything," according to a Jan. 29, 2010, e-mail from Lee to Saeed.
Within weeks, Saeed said, Lee's offices in Afghanistan were shuttered.
Lee couldn't be reached by phone or e-mail. The U.S. military also said it couldn't reach Lee to discuss the allegations.
Saeed and two other Afghan businessmen who worked with Lee said they unsuccessfully sought help from U.S. military contracting officers, anti-corruption investigators and America's special inspector general in Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, there's not a lot I can do to help you in the near term," one US military contracting officer wrote to Saeed in April.
In June, two of the contractors said they made a public appeal to U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry during an event in Kabul to highlight the U.S. government's "Afghan First" strategy of promoting Afghan companies.
"He promised us in front of everybody three times — 'I promise. I promise. I promise, I will solve your problem'," said Rafi Ahmadi, president of Ahmadi Group Construction, Logistic and Services, which is owed about $680,000. "But it was just a promise."
Ahmadi and Saeed said they gave an Eikenberry aide a sheaf of documents to back up their claims. But they never heard back from the U.S. Embassy.
A U.S. Embassy official declined Wednesday to discuss the matter.
At one point, Barakzai was humbled when his tribal elders were forced to intervene and pay $300,000 to one of the businessman's irate unpaid vendors. Angry over the shame of unresolved dispute, the elders instructed Barakzai to stop working with foreigners.
But since so much of his business was with international firms, the Afghan businessman refused.
"I was always saying that foreigners are better in business than Afghans," Barakzai said. "They asked me to not even talk to foreigners again. Don't do business with them."
When rumors started circulating that Lee was preparing to leave Afghanistan, Barakzai began repeatedly to press Bennett-Fouch officials to pay $750,000 his company was owed.
At one point, Barakzai said he threatened a Bennett-Fouch official based at the sprawling Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan on the outskirts of Kandahar City, the major city in the Taliban's spiritual heartland.
"I said, 'If you don't pay me by tomorrow at 4 p.m., I am going to take you to the city," he said. "Go with me. Stay with me. You will be my guest until I get my money."
It took the emergency mediation of one of Kandahar's most influential families — the Sherzais — to resolve the dispute.
In a last-ditch effort to secure his money from Bennett-Fouch, Barakzai said he wrote a Facebook message to Lee and said he was coming to the U.S. to settle the matter.
"Hello Sarah," he wrote to Lee last June. "You might remember me, this is Shoaib Barakzai from Afghanistan who still looking to receive the unpaid money. Could answer to this message or give me your phone number? I want to talk to you and shortly I will be seeing you in your state in the US."
"Come on over," came the reply from Lee's account. "Got a surprise for you when you get here . . . "
Barazkai said the failed business ventures could have a ripple effect in Afghanistan.
"We've really had good business since the U.S. has come, but that doesn't mean that the companies should take the money they make from Afghan businesses back to their countries," Barakzai said. "We are learning this. If they do corruption, then we can think that we will do the same corruption because we have learned from those that taught us."