A journey into one of the most remote and dangerous countries in the world ... Djibouti is a tiny state of citrus-colored shacks and goat-lined boulevards tucked into a barren, volcanic stretch of the Horn of Africa. It sits astride the narrow straits that lead to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and is home to the U.S.'s only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, linchpin of one of the Obama administration's most secretive and controversial programs: the drone-based campaign of surveillance and assassination against Al Qaeda and its allies in Somalia and Yemen. ... as Yemen has become the latest country in the Middle East to descend into a full-fledged civil war. In March, after Houthi rebels seized control of the government, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which accuses the Houthis of being supported by its archrival Iran, launched a U.S.-supported campaign of airstrikes and imposed a land, air and sea blockade of the country — which it says is necessary to keep out Iranian weapons. ... Four months of bitter fighting later, the Houthis control even more territory. And the conflict has pushed this already impoverished country to the brink of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with the aid community warning of an impending famine if the blockade is not lifted. ... Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to seize wide swaths of eastern Yemen, including the port city of Mukalla, and has called for new attacks against the U.S. ISIS has gained a foothold and launched car-bomb attacks in the capital. Forced to evacuate its embassy and 125 special-operations advisers, the U.S. found its counterterrorism strategy in shambles, with many of the weapons and equipment it supplied to Yemen reported to be in the hands of militias.
Hikmatullah Shadman, an Afghan trucking-company owner, earned more than a hundred and sixty million dollars while contracting for the United States military; for the past three years, he has been battling to save much of his fortune in a federal court in Washington, D.C. In United States of America v. Sum of $70,990,605, et al., the Justice Department has accused Hikmat, as he’s known, of bribing contractors and soldiers to award him contracts. Hikmat has maintained his innocence, even as eight soldiers have pleaded guilty in related criminal cases. Several members of the Special Forces who have not been accused of wrongdoing have defended him. In a deposition, Major Jerry (Rusty) Bradley, a veteran Special Forces officer, said, “The only way to right a wrong of this magnitude is to be willing to draw your sword and defend everything that you believe in.” ... Hikmat, who is in his late twenties, looks disarmingly young and gentle. Slim, with a high brow that he often furrows, he countered the charges against him in grave, deliberate English. “The people who did this investigation were sitting in air-conditioned rooms,” he told me. “They don’t know what was happening in the field.” He offered to explain how he had made his fortune. “I was part of the Special Forces family,” he said. “I was trained by them.” ... Before the Americans came, Hikmat lived with his father, a schoolteacher; his mother; and five siblings in a four-room mud-walled house in one of the oldest parts of Kandahar City, in southern Afghanistan. In the summer of 2001, Hikmat was fourteen years old, and he and his friends chafed at the narrowness of life under the Taliban. No one had a telephone, televisions were banned, and there was rarely any electricity. ... He had started a side business selling fruit and soft drinks to the base, and that winter he quit his job as an interpreter in order to work on the business full time. Hikmat told me that a sergeant major at the Special Forces headquarters helped him register it at the main U.S. base, known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF. On February 25, 2007, Hikmat signed a “blanket purchase agreement” with the U.S. military, an open-ended contract for trucking services. He started with a single rented truck.