Conducting an investigation in a hostile environment

US lawyer Kevin E Evans goes on a client mission in Afghanistan to investigate allegations of corruption on a USAID programme

Investigatons in a hostile zone need much preparation

Your client calls and tells you that its project office in Kabul, Afghanistan has just received a visit from two USAID Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) agents wanting to discuss allegations of corruption that had been made by former project employees and vendors.  You also learn that a competitor faced a similar situation less than a year before, which resulted in debarment of the competitor from future USAID projects and indictments of individuals. OIG says that it intends to immediately commence its investigation.  That is the situation I found myself in a year ago.

Putting together the plan

Procedure 4 of the OIG Fraud Reporting Guidance permits OIG and USAID implementing partners to mutually agree to permit the implementing partner to conduct the investigation and provide a detailed report at its conclusion (the report must address, among other things, the investigative steps taken, the results and any financial impact).  We convinced USAID OIG to permit the client to utilize Procedure 4 because we provided OIG with a comprehensive plan of investigation, agreed to provide OIG weekly status reports during the interim, and agreed to submit a comprehensive and detailed report upon conclusion (we outlined in summary fashion at that first meeting what we expected the report to cover).

Having succeeded in obtaining permission from OIG to allow the client (through me) to conduct the investigation, it was time to quickly address the logistics of conducting an investigation in a war zone.  The purpose of this article is not to discuss the details of a “normal” internal investigation.  Rather, the purpose is to address those steps that need to be considered before embarking on an investigation in a hostile environment.

While it is easy to overlook this step, it is important to quickly visit a reputable medical facility that can explain for you the shots that you will need before your visit in country.  You should do this as soon as possible because you may need, depending on the location, to receive a series of shots before you depart.  If you find yourself with a medical issue in a war-torn country, you will be glad you did not overlook this detail.  The medical facility also can help you with the contents of your first aid pack.

Finding a base

An equally important immediate step is to determine where you will stay in country and who will be providing your transportation and security.  Indeed, this will be the most important decision you make.  Do not think that you will land in country and waltz off to the nearest car rental counter or cab stand.  You will want to make sure that the company you choose has an acceptable compound with armed security, has references, can provide suitable lodging and meals (if you have dietary restrictions, this is the time to address those), will provide you with armed security during your off-site visits, and can assist you by providing necessary information prior to landing and during your stay. 

Both times I travelled to Kabul on this investigation, I chose to stay on the grounds of Pax Mondial, and they were terrific.  Prior to departure they provided me with a security briefing and security updates so that I knew what was happening in country, and with critical “tips” about how to handle myself up to the point of delivery.  For instance, I was told in no uncertain terms not to take photographs at any place on airport grounds; this was a war zone and the airport was considered a high security location.  As a result, I avoided the temptation upon arrival, and I was glad I did.  Another person on the flight had not been forewarned, pulled out his cell phone to take a picture, and was quickly surrounded by armed Afghan military personnel and whisked away.  The security company also should be at the airport awaiting your arrival to assist you with the processing procedure, which in Afghanistan is archaic. 

Making travel and security arrangements

You also will need to decide your method of travel while in country, for example, do you want to travel in an armored vehicle or a “soft shell.”  Pax Mondial recommended that I travel in a soft shell, and I took that advice.  Travel in an armored vehicle is unwanted advertisement I was told. Turns out that but for one incident, which I will describe shortly, we did not have a problem while travelling on the Kabul streets (which we did daily). 

I recommend that you also have the security company commit in advance to the members of your security detail, and that it include both a driver and a lead.  On my first trip, the head of my security team was a former member of President Karzai’s security detail.  On my second visit, which happened to occur during Ramadan, the head of my security team was a former Afghan army military officer. I was quite comfortable both times.

The visa issue

You will want to obtain your visa as soon as possible, and do not assume that the information published on the country’s diplomatic web page regarding turnaround time is accurate.  Moreover, when you receive your visa, check and double check it, paying particular attention to the arrival and departure dates.  In connection with my second visit, the Afghan embassy shortened my anticipated departure date by a week, requiring another visit for correction.  I later was told that this would have created a significant problem for me at the time of departure from Kabul had that issue not been resolved beforehand.

A run-in with a Kalashnikov

Another important detail is to ensure that you make and bring several color copies of your passport and passport photos, and keep them under lock and key at your lodging in country.  In Afghanistan, I was told it is not uncommon to be stopped on the streets and asked for your passport.  If you are not carrying an official passport, you risk being “detained.”  I also was informed in advance that the Afghan police and military personnel (and they are omnipresent) who ask for passports often time demand “payment” for their return, and there were stories of the authorities keeping passports unless the “payments” were made.  This is where your security team will earn their keep. 

During my first visit, we were stopped repeatedly on one particular day during travel from Pax Mondial to the client site.  After being stopped for the third time, the head of my security team (the former member of Karzai’s security detail) got into a heated “discussion” with one of the Afghan police members, at which time another Afghan policeman approached the opposite side of the vehicle and pointed his Kalashnikov at the back door window opposite where I was sitting.  A few moments later the episode subsided and we were allowed to pass; I asked what the head of my security detail said, and he would only say (he was a man of few words) that he told the officer he is a good friend of the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service.  I switched topics.

Investigate as much as possible prior to arrival

Another important point is to accomplish as much of the investigative legwork as possible before setting foot in country.  You should make every effort to communicate (I recommend both email and cell phone) with those whom you would like to interview in advance, and arrange for a time and place to meet.  Find excuses to develop a rapport and maintain contact in the interim; utilize your diplomatic skills.  You do not want to land in country and attempt to make arrangements at that time.  While this might not be the way you would typically handle an investigation, and there may be individuals that you will need to wait to contact until you arrive, you do not want to travel thousands of miles only to find yourself twiddling your thumbs.

You also will need to find and arrange for backup locations for interviews. For instance, there were several individuals who would not agree to meet on the grounds of Pax Mondial, as they did not want to be seen entering the security compound of a British company.  There also were individuals who initially agreed to meet there, but just prior to the day of the interview said they would only agree to meet at another location.  The alternate location should not have windows facing the street and should have security that you are comfortable with.

Pax Mondial suggested that we book a conference room at the Afghanistan Intercontinental Hotel. That turned out to be a wise choice.  You will need to consider booking a room for the entire time of your visit, even for days that you think you might be working elsewhere; the last thing you will want to encounter is a logistical problem prior to a day of scheduled interviews.  You will need to make sure that you bring plenty of money with you to pay for such things; don’t expect to pay by credit card or to receive an invoice.

The right interpreter for witness interviews

Regarding witness interviews, you will want an interpreter who speaks the native dialects.  In our case we were fortunate that KPMG had a local affiliate office in Kabul, and that two of their employees spoke both Pashtun and Dari.  While I was surprised at the number of individuals we interviewed who could converse in English, you will want an interpreter present at all interviews.  Another point to keep in mind are possible conflicts among the local population.  Pax Mondial helped me understand that there are many individuals in Kabul who would not take kindly to an interpreter of Pakistani descent; we heeded that advice.

Local customs

You also should make every effort to understand the customs and expectations of the population before you commence the interviews.  For instance, we were told that we should never close the door while interviewing a female, for it could subject her to ridicule and harassment afterwards.  (My shock at how women and girls are treated in Afghanistan still lingers, but those stories are the topic for another day.)

You need to keep in mind that there may be days when you find yourself on “lockdown.”  That happened during my second visit following the terrorist attack on the old British embassy building, quite close to the Pax Mondial location where I was staying.  It turns out that we were on lockdown for two days and not allowed to leave the security grounds.  While I used that time to work on the report of investigation that we ultimately would submit to USAID OIG, interrupted on occasion by the crackling of gunfire and rotors of overhead helicopter gunships, you also should consider bringing other work with you.

Find a distraction

If you are going to be in country for any appreciable period of time as I was, you also should look for diversions to avoid going stir crazy.  For instance, NGO employees working with the Afghanistan Ministry of Education also were staying at Pax Mondial.  They asked me if I would consider presenting a lecture on the American legal system to a class of aspiring Afghan diplomats, and I jumped at the opportunity.  It gave me an opportunity to interact with the local population in a different way.  (As an aside, I was taken aback by how the two female students even in a classroom such at that were unwilling to engage, despite my repeated efforts to involve them.)

Keep close to your security detail

Upon departure, you will want to make sure that your security detail remains with you up until the time of entry into the passport line.  During my second visit there was an “issue” at the airport and everyone was required to stand outside about 500 yards from the terminal building until 1 hour before scheduled departure (which meant I had to stand outside for roughly 45 minutes); it was good to have a local and familiar face there with me.While there are many considerations that you need to address before undertaking an investigation in a hostile environment, I wholeheartedly recommend the experience. 

Kevin D Evans is a partner at US law firm Steese, Evans & Frankel which has offices in Denver, Colorado and Washington, D.C. Prior to starting his own firm nine years ago, Mr. Evans was a partner at Hogan & Hartson LLP, now Hogan Lovells


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