Commentary

Private Military Contractors as Buzz Lightyear: To Afghanistan and Beyond

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on March 11, 2010.

While the role and impact of private military and security contractors in Iraq is hardly a spent issue, increasingly, eyes and attention are turning to Afghanistan.

This is hardly surprising. The Obama Administration’s surge strategy inevitably means more US and NATO member troops, which, in turn, means more bases needing to be built, more facilities to be managed, and more people to guard them, as well as the convoys that bring in supplies by truck. Remember that the 30,000 extra US troops being deployed to Afghanistan could be accompanied by up to 56,000 additional contractor personnel.

These contractors are involved in Base Support, Construction, Translator/Interpreter, Security, Transportation, and Communications Support functions.

A January 19 report by the Congressional Research Service states:

In Afghanistan, there are currently 52 PSCs licensed to operate in Afghanistan with some 25,000 registered security contractors. PSCs operating in Afghanistan are limited to 500 employees and can only exceed 500 with permission from the Cabinet.

Because of the legal restrictions placed on security companies in Afghanistan, a number of PSCs are operating without a license or are exceeding the legal limit, including security contractors working for NATO and the U.S. Government.

Many analysts believe that regulations governing PSCs are only enforced in Kabul; outside Kabul there is no government reach at present and local governors, chiefs of police, and politicians run their own illegal PSCs. Estimates of the total number of security contractors in Afghanistan, including those that are not licensed, are as high as 70,000.

The majority of these PSCs do not work for the U.S. government. Responding to the concerns over the use of PSCs in Afghanistan, in November 2009, President Karzai stated a goal of closing down all PSCs in two years.

From the viewpoint of ensuring accountability over contractors this is obviously not the best of all possible worlds. But it may be of some small comfort, at least to Western firms, that local, Afghan owned and operated, private contractors may be the ones most likely to run afoul of the law.

Still, some U.S. firms have already created their own controversies. Just last week US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said he will review allegations of misconduct in Afghanistan by the firm formerly known as Blackwater. The company is mired in allegations that it has previously misappropriated government weapons and hired people with violent backgrounds.

But in the meantime it is still getting contracts. Just yesterday the Pentagon announced that Xe subsidiary Presidential Airways, Inc. was awarded a $39,084,532 task order for rotary wing aircraft, to perform passenger and cargo air transportation services in Afghanistan, to be completed by Nov. 30, 2010.

And despite the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing into various misdeeds committed by contractors working for Paravant, a Xe Service subsidiary or shell company, depending on how you look at it, that was working for Raytheon Technical Services, Xe may well win later this month a new Pentagon contract that could be worth as much as a billion dollars to train the Afghan police. Although how that could happen given Xe/Blackwater’s history remains a mystery.

Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent notes that the military command responsible for training Afghan security forces said that good-government contract rules prevent them from banning Blackwater.

Specifically, an obscure contracting rule known as Federal Acquisition Regulation 9.406-2 prevents an acquisition official for banning a company from being awarded a contract unless the company has been formally “debarred” from eligibility - something that has never happened in Blackwater’s case. However, several criteria for debarment appear to apply to Blackwater, including “commission of fraud,” “theft,” “falsification or destruction of records, making false statements,” “a history of failure to perform, or of unsatisfactory performance of, one or more contracts,” and “violations of the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), as of September 2009, there were 11,423 private security contractors in Afghanistan, of which 10,712 (94%) were armed. Of the armed security contractors, 90% were local nationals. Less than one percent was American, and the rest were third country nationals.

Of course, in recent years the trend has been rising. According to DOD, from September 2007 to December 2008, the number of armed security contractors increased from 2,401 to 3,184, an increase of 33%. But from December 2008 to September 2009, the number of armed security contractors increased from 3,184 to 10,712, an increase of 236% DOD attributed the increase in security contractors to increased operational tempo and efforts to stabilize and develop new and existing forward operating bases.

According to DOD, from September 2007 to June 2009, the number of armed security contractors increased at a slower rate than overall contractor and troop levels. However, from June to September 2009, armed security contractors increased at a faster rate (107%) than total contractors (43%) or troop levels (16%). As of September 2009, armed security contractors made up 10% of all contractors. However, armed contractors make up only about 6% of DOD’s workforce in Afghanistan.

But anyway you look at it contractors are everywhere in Afghanistan. This was the case even before the Obama Administration announced its surge strategy. In December 2008, contractors represented 69% of DOD’s workforce in Afghanistan, which apparently represented the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States. According to DOD officials, contractors are expected to make up approximately 50%-55% of the total workforce in Afghanistan in the future, although such an estimate could change if conditions in Afghanistan change

An under-appreciated aspect of PMC working in Afghanistan is that due to their manpower, representation at the headquarters of inter-allied organizations, and their international connections, the PMCs are in a position to influence military decisions on operational matters. Employees of MPRI can be found throughout the hierarchy of International Security Assistance Force ((ISAF) and the Afghan security forces. They serve as mentors to armed forces general staff and to governments, help to draft doctrine for the Afghan National Army (ANA) as part of the Combined Training Advisory Group (CTAG), train officers at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC) and provide instruction to specialists.

Marie-Dominique Charlier was political adviser to the commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from February to August 2008. Last month she wrote in Le Monde diplomatique:

That with in-depth knowledge of the Afghan theatre from tours of duty lasting two to four years, PMC personnel have unrivaled experience of local conditions. Their experience is a vital asset to the inter-allied staff officers whose tours of duty are rarely longer than six months. It allows them to co-ordinate, regulate and even promote the involvement of other PMCs and to steer the perceptions of the military in direction that suits them.

According to official sources in the French ministry of defense, the budget allocated to MPRI for drafting the ANA’s military doctrine is some $200 million; the training of ANA troops will cost nearly $1.7 billion. So the PMCs have no interest in stabilizing the situation or in the successful Afghanization of the ANA. That would lessen the need for contractors, which would be against their financial interests. So they take great care not to pass on their knowledge, and prefer to deputize for Afghan organizations rather than giving them useful advice.

“General” Gulbahar, in charge of doctrine at the Afghan National Army Training Command’s doctrine office, says he has been given no target date for the handover of the drafting of ANA military doctrine to Afghan control. Gulbahar is not unhappy to be supervised: He is in fact a colonel serving in a position normally occupied by a general and has everything to lose by questioning the status quo.

MPRI, therefore, has what amounts to a monopoly on the drafting of Afghan army doctrine, which allows it to justify the prolongation of its assisting role. But MPRI also shows solidarity with other PMCs: The ANA’s logistical doctrine, drafted by MPRI, names DynCorp as the organization responsible for providing logistics support to the ANA’s air corps, without specifying any restrictions or limitations on the duration of this role.

The “training” element is highly profitable. The PMCs are recruiting and training 800 instructors as part of a program to combat illiteracy in the ANA, but their determination to secure the greatest possible return on investment has encouraged them to extend the duration of the training provided. It would seem that fostering the ANA’s own training capabilities is not a priority. The same applies to logistics (currently provided by RM Asia), another key element of the PMC monopoly: no deadlines have been set for the training of Afghan technicians.

It is already clear that corruption with respect to contracts in Afghanistan is a significant problem.

Earlier this week the Independent newspaper in Great Britain reported that a major investigation has been launched into contracts awarded by coalition forces in Afghanistan that are worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The probe into construction and logistics contracts of the ISAF has been ordered by Major General Nick Carter, commander of ISAF forces in the south of the country.

Reportedly a third of the costs of supplying the armed forces in Afghanistan is spent on paying protection, bribery and safe passage fees, and everybody is complicit. One wonders if this is the sort of standard operating procedure PMC trade groups have in mind when they talk about private contractors making the U.S. military the “best supported, supplied military in any military operation in history.”

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.