Since 2006, when the insurgency in Afghanistan sharply intensified, the Afghan government has been dependent on American logistics and military support in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
But to arm the Afghan forces that it hopes will lead this fight, the U.S. military has relied since early last year on a fledgling company led by a 22-year-old man whose vice president was a licensed masseur.
With the award last January of a federal contract worth as much as nearly $300 million, the company, AEY Inc., which operates out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach, Fla., became the main supplier of munitions to Afghanistan's army and police forces.
Since then, the company has provided ammunition that is more than 40 years old and in decomposing packaging, according to an examination of the munitions by The New York Times and interviews with U.S. and Afghan officials. Much of the ammunition comes from the aging stockpiles of the old Communist bloc, including stockpiles that the State Department and NATO have determined to be unreliable and obsolete, and have spent millions of dollars to have destroyed.
In purchasing munitions, the contractor has also worked through middlemen and a shell company on a federal list of entities suspected of illegal arms trafficking.
Moreover, tens of millions of the rifle and machine-gun cartridges were manufactured in China, making their procurement a possible violation of U.S. law. The company's president, Efraim E. Diveroli, was also secretly recorded in a conversation that suggested corruption in his company's purchase of more than 100 million aging rounds in Albania, according to an audio files of the conversation.
This week, after repeated inquiries by the Times about AEY's performance, the Army suspended the company from any future federal contracting, citing the shipment of Chinese ammunition and claiming that Diveroli misled the Army about the origins of the munitions.
Diveroli, reached by telephone, said he was unaware of the action. The Army planned to notify his company by certified mail today, according to internal correspondence provided by a military official.
But problems with the ammunition were evident last fall in places like Nawa, Afghanistan, an outpost near the Pakistani border, where an Afghan lieutenant colonel surveyed the rifle cartridges on his police station's dirty floor. Soon after arriving there, the cardboard boxes had split open and their contents spilled out, revealing ammunition manufactured in China in 1966.
"This is what they give us for the fighting," said the colonel, Amanuddin, who like many Afghans has only one name. "It makes us worried, because too much of it is junk."
Ammunition as it ages over decades often becomes less powerful, reliable and accurate.
An examination of AEY's background, through interviews in several countries, reviews of confidential government documents and the examination of some of the ammunition, suggests that Army contracting officials, under pressure to arm Afghan troops, allowed an immature company to act as supplier, and did so with minimal vetting and through a vaguely written contract with few restrictions.
In addition to this week's suspension, AEY is under investigation by the Department of Defense's inspector general and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prompted by complaints about the quality and origins of ammunition it provided, and allegations of corruption.
Diveroli, in a brief telephone interview late last year, denied any wrongdoing. "I know that my company does everything 100 percent on the up and up, and that's all I'm concerned about," he said.
He also suggested that his activities should be shielded from public view. "AEY is working on a moderately classified Department of Defense project," he said. "I really don't want to talk about the details."
As part of the suspension, neither Diveroli nor his company can bid on any further federal work until the Army's allegations are resolved. But he will be allowed to provide ammunition already on order under the Afghan contract, according to internal military correspondence.
But in Afghanistan, U.S. munitions officers are examining all of the small-arms ammunition AEY has shipped. The final shipment, which arrived in wooden crates, included loose and corroded cartridges, according to three officers.