The Pentagon steered USD369 million in defence contracts to Azerbaijan's Silk Way Airlines (ZP, Baku Heydar Aliev International) in exchange for US and NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization access to critical supply routes during the height of America's war in Afghanistan, according to an exposé by The Washington Post.

Two United States Air Force generals - Duncan McNabb and William Fraser III - who oversaw the supply routes from 2008 to 2014, on retirement, negotiated lucrative consulting deals (one of them USD5,000 a day) with the cargo carrier, according to official files obtained by the newspaper after a four-year-long battle and legal action to gain access to them under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

More than 400 pages of documents reveal that US Air Force intelligence objected to the Azerbaijan business deals for reasons that remain classified. US Air Force Review Boards Agency director Philip Deavel raised ethical concerns over the US military giving extensive business to Silk Way Airlines while McNabb and Fraser managed the supply routes through Azerbaijan. In a 2015 confidential memo, Deavel warned his superiors, "we should do nothing that would cause Congress or the media to question whether the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to Silk Way are solely for valid national security needs." McNabb and Fraser knew "that a perk of office is a lucrative advisory contract from Silk Way upon retirement," he said.

The retired generals pressed US Air Force officials to approve their consulting deals. According to the memo, Fraser warned of political "blow-back" from Azerbaijan should he not be allowed to consult to Silk Way Airlines.

According to The Post, Silk Way Airlines received USD269 million in US defence contracts during McNabb's three-year tenure at the US Transportation Command (Transcom), with an additional USD100 million worth of business after the general retired. Transcom had awarded 2,230 cargo airlift missions to Silk Way during McNabb's tenure, plus 1,117 missions while Fraser was in command, for a total cost of USD369 million.

After he retired, Silk Way hired McNabb as an advisor to modernise its operational control centre at Baku Heydar Aliev International. He set up a consulting firm, Ares Mobility Solutions, which bagged a USD10,000 monthly retainer plus expenses from Silk Way. McNabb never sought federal permission, reasoning that Silk Way Airlines was wholly-private, so he didn't need federal authorisation.

For his part, Fraser received a job offer within days of retiring from Silk Way Group, parent of Silk Way Airlines and 23 other subsidiaries, including Silk Way West Airlines (7L, Baku Heydar Aliev International), AWAS, and Silk Way Bank. The group had come to dominate the aviation sector in Azerbaijan after the partial privatisation of the country's state-owned AZAL Azerbaijan Airlines (J2, Baku Heydar Aliev International).

Fraser sought advance permission from the US Air Force but was turned down on "national security concerns" as the State Department suspected the Azerbaijan government effectively controlled Silk Way and its subsidiaries and was concerned the US Congress would see the consulting deals as "paybacks".

Still, in a 2015 filing with the US Department of Transportation (DOT), Silk Way Group stated it was "100% owned" by another private firm, Silk Way Development LLC. That entity, in turn, was listed as being 95% owned by Zaur Akhundov, the founder of Silk Way Airlines.

In answer to questions from The Post, Silk Way Airlines said that it "has always been commercial, private, and has never been related to the state or politics" and that it sought to hire McNabb and Fraser for their expertise in transportation and logistics. The company said it "in no way intended, implied, or needed to offer 'paybacks' for a longstanding" contractual relationship with Transcom. Silk Way described Akhundov as "the ultimate beneficial owner" of the firm and said "he has never acted" as a proxy or trustee for other shareholders.

Fraser was turned down again when he resubmitted his application to the US Air Force in November 2014. This time, he would consult for Silk Way West Airlines to "improve their knowledge and understanding of US commercial markets and existing US commercial supply chains". He never mentioned that his son, William Fraser IV, a former US Marine sergeant, worked as an assistant to the president of state-owned Azerbaijan Airlines and part-time for Silk Way West Airlines.

In June 2015, the US Air Force opened an investigation to determine whether McNabb had committed misconduct by working for Silk Way Airlines without federal approval. During the probe, McNabb denied his consulting job with Silk Way was a reward for the US defence contracts awarded to the company when he headed Transcom.

In November 2015, the US Air Force inspector general's office concluded McNabb violated the law by not seeking permission for foreign-government employment. There was no criminal penalty, but the military withheld his retirement pay. This was confirmed by McNabb, who declined to say by how much. "It was enough," he said. "I paid."

ch-aviation has reached out to Silk Way Airlines for comment.