The maimed face of 18-year-old Aisha, her nose and ears cut off as punishment by her Afghan husband for fleeing his home, made the cover of Time magazine last week and changed the debate over the country’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Hitting stands just as a growing chorus of pundits and lawmakers had begun to question the costs, the goals and the point of the country’s longest war ever, the gut-punch cover image, beneath a stunningly blunt coverline conspicuously missing a question mark — “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan” — and accompanying story by Aryn Baker, the magazine’s Afghan/Pakistan bureau chief, gave a boost to supporters of America’s continued military involvement in the country.
But there was more than a question mark missing from the Time story, which stressed potentially disastrous consequences if the U.S. pursues negotiations with the Taliban. The piece lacked a crucial personal disclosure on Baker’s part: Her husband, Tamim Samee, an Afghan-American IT entrepreneur, is a board member of an Afghan government minister’s $100 million project advocating foreign investment in Afghanistan, and has run two companies, Digistan and Ora-Tech, that have solicited and won development contracts with the assistance of the international military, including private sector infrastructure projects favored by U.S.-backed leader Hamid Karzai.
In other words, the Time reporter who wrote a story bolstering the case for war appears to have benefited materially from the NATO invasion. Reached by The Observer, a Time spokesperson revealed that the magazine has just reassigned Baker to a new country as part of a normal rotation, though he declined to say where.
While Baker, traveling in Italy, did not respond to Observer.com’s request for comment, Time defended its cover story as “neither in support of, nor in opposition to, the U.S. war effort” but rather a “straightforward reported piece.” Time added that “Aryn Baker’s husband has no connection to the U.S. military, has never solicited business from them and has no financial stake in the U.S. presence in Afghanistan whatsoever.”
But two years before his wedding to the Time bureau chief, Samee told Radio Free Europe in 2006 that Digistan — apparently the local arm of an international IT operation, run from a villa in Kabul — was discovering for itself that the “opportunities are definitely here” in the telecom field, thanks to “quite a bit of involvement from ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, commanded until recently by Stanley Gen. McChrystal] and coalition forces.” The same year, he told Entrepreneur: “You won’t find another place that offers so many opportunities” and the AP that profits “have been higher than I expected.” Three years later, Digistan was advertising for sales staff skilled in “Government and Military Procurement,” reflecting the company’s connection to the cloudy world of NATO-enabled civilian wartime contracts.
Baker announced her engagement to Samee in a September 24, 2008, e-mail to friends. “Stop the Presses!!” had become the subject line by the time I received the forward from a succession of mutual acquaintances (we were J-school classmates at Berkeley a decade ago). She said the two had been dating “since last July, when we went hiking on a trip together through the Afghan Pamirs,” and invited recipients to an engagement party in Central Asia. “For those of you not in Kabul,” she added, “we will be sorry to miss you, but we also understand that travel to a war zone may not be in your plans.” Two months later, the ceremony itself was held in Baker’s native L.A.
For her work in Central Asia, which has included surviving the 2007 attack on Islamabad’s Red Mosque by the Pakistan army, Baker has been praised by her boss Rick Stengel, who gushed to Marketwatch last November, “If I were President Obama, I’d ask Aryn Baker what she thinks. She’s dazzling.”
When the war started, Samee, then working as a manager for a telecom firm in northern Virginia, had followed what investigative journalist Pratap Chatterjee, author of Halliburton’s Army, calls a typical pattern for Beltway-area members of the Afghan diaspora, whose involvement was encouraged by the Pentagon. Nothing nefarious about it, Chatterjee says, but “there was a lot of money to be made.”
A Time spokesman claims that Digistan has been defunct for 18 months and that Samee had entered the sandwich business. But online evidence suggests the company was in operation much longer and that Samee’s stake in NATO involvement in the country goes deeper.
For instance, Digistan’s sister company, Ora-Tech Systems, still lists an office in Kabul, and Digistan remains listed in the directory of the Peace Dividend Marketplace, an approved list of government contractors that an NGO founded in 2007 to identify trustworthy partners in a business environment where as much as $10 billion in the hands of Afghan officials has reportedly gone missing. Much of the work is for civilian agencies. According to the listing, Digistan’s clients have included the IMF and GTZ, a Frankfurt consulting group that advises the Afghan government’s Export Promotion Agency.
Business owners join the list in order to profit from an “Afghan First” policy issued by Gen. McChrystal a few months before his departure. According to the Peace Dividend’s Kabul director, former Canadian army Col. Mike Capstick, the Peace Dividend Marketplace list is where officials in the U.S. Department of Defense contracting system turn when deciding where to spend $1 billion a year on Afghan businesses.
Scott Gilmore, the former U.N. national security diplomat who founded the Marketplace, praised Digistan’s work — “Those guys are great,” he said — and told Observer.com that any company on the list was “still kicking around” in the last six months, as his group works hard to keep their directory current.