By William Fisher
Failures in vetting, training, and supervising Defense Department private security contractors are putting U.S. and coalition troops as well as Afghan civilians at risk and unwittingly aiding Afghan militants by hiring security contractors provided by the Taliban and by warlords.
That is the bottom line of a new report released last week by the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. The report -- “Inquiry into the Role and Oversight of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan” -- resulted from an in-depth year-long process. The Committee said the report “provides a detailed critical assessment of the role of private security contractors in Afghanistan” and “reveals the threat that security contractors operating without adequate U.S. government supervision can pose to the mission in Afghanistan.”
The report charges that there are significant gaps in U.S. government oversight of private security contractors in Afghanistan. The Defense Department (DOD) “has failed to enforce its policies meant to hold private security contractors’ accountable and to address serious private security contractor deficiencies.”
The United States increasingly relies on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan to perform a range of services, from filing paperwork to using deadly force. Private military contractors still outnumber U.S. troops there. As of May 2010, there were over 23,000 armed private security contractors in Afghanistan, and as the Committee’s inquiry found, operating with inadequate government oversight.
The mission of Afghan subcontractors usually includes guarding U.S. military bases, civilian installations, construction projects and truck convoys of supplies.
The response from good government and human rights groups was largely positive.
POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, called for stronger contract oversight and “a serious reevaluation of whether security should be outsourced in war zones.”
Nick Schwellenbach, POGO’s Director of Investigations, told IPS, “The new findings further make the case for stronger oversight of contractors -- but they also lead us to ask if security functions should be outsourced at all.”
"More money means more problems if there isn't sufficient oversight of security contractors. The most important question to ask, though, is if we should be using contractors at all where there is no rule of law," said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director. "Several government reports say we're funding people who are undermining our efforts in Afghanistan."
Laura W. Murphy, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington Legislative Office, said, “The massive use of private contractors in our intelligence community further exacerbates the lack of control, oversight and accountability that already plagues our intelligence apparatus.”
She added, “The excessive use of contractors puts more distance between the government and those carrying out intelligence work and infuses the profit motive into a calculation that should be focused on effectiveness and adhering to the rule of law.”
Another influential group, Human Rights First (HRF), referenced its own recent report on contractor oversight, which concluded that inadequate oversight of private contractors in conflict zones and a failure to hold the contractors legally accountable threatens to compromise U.S. national security and undermine the nation's ongoing military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
HRF urged Congress to enact the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2010 to expand criminal jurisdiction over and increase investigative resources for serious crimes committed by U.S. contractors.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the poor vetting of the 26,000 security contractors jeopardized the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan.
"We need to shut off the spigot of U.S. dollars flowing into the pockets of warlords and power brokers who act contrary to our interests and contribute to the corruption that weakens the support of the Afghan people for their government," Levin said in a statement.
Investigators for the Senate Armed Services Committee found "systemic failures" in the way 125 Defense Department contracts were granted between 2007 and 2009.
For example, those responsible for conducting background checks on potential hires as security guards were insufficient to discover possible associates of Afghan warlords in a timely fashion. Some security guards were thought to be agents trained by Iran.
The Senate investigation prompted Afghanistan's Interior Minister to announce this week that his government would shut down any private security firms that are unlicensed and do not properly check the backgrounds of employees.
The Senate report was based on 30 interviews with Defense Department contractors and military personnel and written responses from others.
The report said that investigators found "squandered resources and dangerous failures in contractor performance, including untrained guards, insufficient and unserviceable weapons, unmanned posts and other shortcomings that directly affect the safety of U.S. military personnel."
Nevertheless, the report concludes that 90 percent of the security personnel work under U.S. government contracts.
"Money is ammunition; don't put it in the wrong hands," Gen. David Petraeus warned in an August memo that gave counterinsurgency (COIN) guidance.
The Senate report said, its "inquiry uncovered evidence of private
security contractors funneling U.S. taxpayers dollars to Afghan warlords and
strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities."
The numerous problems covered in the report range from untrained guards to insufficient weaponry to unmanned posts.
The report confirmed suspicions that were raised in congressional testimony last December, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said they had suspicions the U.S. government was indirectly funding Afghan warlords and the Taliban.
However, U.S. military personnel have said the warlords sometimes force out anyone else from the security jobs with threats of violence.
The U.S. military hires contractors for the security jobs to free up its own soldiers for duties more directly related to combat. Now, military leaders say they are reconsidering the policy.
It was recently revealed that the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide – which has been banned from contracting in Iraq – created a new subsidiary whose name is not related to Blackwater, or Xe Services, as it is now known, and used that subsidiary in its successful bid for security work in Afghanistan. The parent company has also won additional security work in Iraq.
Contracting officers said they had no knowledge of any relationship between Xe Services and the new Afghan company, but other government officials suggested that the name-change was merely a way to conceal the company’s true identity.