The Private Contracting Surge Into Afghanistan

by , May 14, 2009

Conveniently short on real details – perhaps deliberately so – the Obama administration’s new war strategy for Afghanistan has yet to acknowledge the huge footprint the United States will have on that country in another year’s time.

One thing is becoming clear, though: it will be a larger footprint than we had anticipated a year ago. In fact, it already is. Just like in Iraq, a "shadow army" has been serving alongside American servicemen and women in Afghanistan. So far, it is at least 70,000 strong. Private contractors – now indispensable to the U.S. military as it wages war – are expected to grow and much surpass that number as U.S. troops there double from 35,000 to nearly 70,000 by 2010.

"In short, we will be bringing as many contractors as we are troops – especially KBR [Kellogg, Brown and Root] – because they now feed and house the military, and the military has no real choice, because they have let that part of their logistics atrophy," pointed out Dina Rasor, director of the Follow the Money Project and co-author of Betraying our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War.

Despite previous calls by President Barack Obama to reform the flawed and ballooning dependence of the military on private contractors, serious problems have hardly been addressed. So while billions of dollars will remain in dispute in Iraq, Obama has no choice but to keep pouring money into American firms such as KBR, DynCorp, and even Xe (formerly Blackwater) if he wants to move forward with the mission in Afghanistan, despite those firms’ notorious reputations for waste, fraud, and abuse in theater.

Some of the most damning allegations include committing homicide against Iraqis and putting U.S. troops in harm’s way by serving them spoiled food and dirty water, exposing them to poisonous burn pits and toxic chemicals, and building them showers with faulty wiring.

"All of the fraud, waste, and … negligent homicide will be brought into Afghanistan if nothing is done," Rasor told Antiwar.com.

Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, told the Washington Post in February that it was "too late" to implement the structural changes necessary to get real oversight of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan, at least of the billions that are expected to go into reconstruction. Already the government has spent about $30 billion through contractors on reconstruction there, according to Bowen.

Bowen gave the Wartime Contracting Commission – which was set up by Congress to study and make recommendations on how to do contracting better, but has yet to release an interim report, yet alone the real one (which isn’t due until next summer) – a similar rendering. In the same February hearing, Thomas Gimble of the Defense Department inspector general’s office, told commissioners that there are 154 open criminal investigations into allegations of bribery, conflicts of interest, defective products, bid-rigging, and theft in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait having to do with the military’s runaway spending on private contractors.

Just this month, April Stephenson, director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), told the commission that that the number of fraud investigations tied to KBR are "unprecedented" and suggested that as much as $4.3 billion might have been over-billed by the former Halliburton subsidiary, while some $3.3 billion in expenses wasn’t "supported" and another $550 million in expenses wasn’t "allowable." This all took place under the U.S. Army’s LOGCAP III (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program) contract, which covers all of the operations in the current war theater, including Afghanistan and is worth more than $16 billion to KBR.

According to investigative journalist Pratap Chatterjee, there is one KBR worker for every three U.S. soldiers in Iraq. "Obama needs to ask his Pentagon commanders: Can the U.S. military he has now inherited do anything without KBR? And the answer will certainly be a resounding no."

The military has been averse to resisting this stranglehold for many reasons, one being that the Pentagon believes it is saving an awful lot of money by contracting out the war. But more darkly, sources have testified that they did not question KBR’s more dubious practices or hold back payments, because they believed KBR might withhold goods and services for troops in the field or, at the very least, the military wouldn’t have had anyone else to turn to. Let’s face it: despite the slick, patriotic pose to the contrary, KBR is a business, with a bottom line. According to Jeffrey Parsons, head of the Army Contracting Command, which oversees LOGCAP, who also testified before the commission, "there was not any real backup plan. …This would have had to have been turned back over to the organic force, and it was questionable what that would’ve done."

The Army believed it was resolving at least some of the problems when it awarded LOGCAP IV last April. It split the monopoly KBR had on the massive cost-plus-award-fee rubric between DynCorp, the Fluor Corporation, and KBR. This left one commissioner befuddled.

"What does a contractor have to do to get the government not to contract with them?" asked Linda Gustitus. "We’ve gone through this litany of abuses from KBR … but, guess what, one of the contractors on LOGCAP IV is KBR."

Surging Into Afghanistan

When Obama was elected president, it wasn’t immediately clear to the American public what he had in mind for Afghanistan, but it became obvious – though not very well-publicized – back in January, when Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reported that the Army was building $1.1 billion worth of military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and planning to start an additional $1.3 billion in projects this year.

"Massive construction of barracks, training areas, headquarters, warehouses, and airfields for use by U.S. and Afghan security forces – which could reach $4 billion – signals a long-term U.S. military commitment at a time when the incoming Obama administration’s policy for the Afghan war is unclear," according to Pincus. Since then, the administration has announced a sweeping new but "focused" strategy in Iraq that will include the addition of 21,000 troops, and more by 2010.

In April, the administration confirmed the combat numbers and announced a "civilian surge" in which U.S. State Department advisers (of whom it reportedly does not have enough to spare) will descend at some point on the country to help rebuild Afghan institutions, including its beleaguered and corrupted government ministries. Meanwhile, the military is also expected to engage in a massive drug interdiction effort as part of its overall counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold, and build.

What this means to the private contracting industry is so far unclear, but we can guess it will be nothing short of a bonanza. At the height of the Iraq surge in late 2007, there were an estimated 180,000 contractors alongside a U.S. military force strength of 155,000. If there are some 71,000 contractors inside Afghanistan today, dwarfing the current number of U.S. military, which is 36,000 and climbing, well, we can do the math.

Hired Guns

Recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked to defend the ramped-up hiring and management of armed private security guards – of which there are now nearly 4,000 in Afghanistan on the U.S. government payroll – in light of myriad problems involving similar hired guns in Iraq. This came on the heels of reports since December that the Army was putting out bids for private guards to "protect the entry control points of the [U.S.] bases to prevent ‘threats related to unauthorized personnel, contraband, and instruments of damage, destruction, and information-collection from entering the installation.’"

The guards would be required to employ surveillance and counter-surveillance and be required to use “the appropriate force to neutralize any threat,” though they would be prevented from engaging in "offensive operations" alongside the military, and thus becoming full-fledged mercenaries.

"[This] would appear to dramatically expand the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan," complained Levin, who pointed out the "widespread abuses" of such notable security companies like Triple Canopy and Blackwater in Iraq. Five former Blackwater security guards are currently facing federal charges that they gunned down 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square in September 2007.

But there is one big difference when comparing the private security situation with Iraq: in Afghanistan, most of the hired guards are indigenous, not Western or international. In fact, only a fraction hold U.S. passports. Just before a Kabul crackdown on the private security contracting industry in 2007, there were some 120,000 men being employed by 2,000 militias.

These guns were – and still are – being hired out by private companies, including major ones with U.S. contracts, like DynCorp. Afghans today are frequently hired for embassy security details, and in addition to the base security, non-Americans are protecting critical U.S. military convoys coming down through Pakistan. Why not give the jobs to the locals, say defenders like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But others wonder how the military got to the point where it could not do the work itself.

"In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, security contractors have filled a power vacuum that was created when the administration opted for a military deployment with neither the size nor the mandate to stabilize the country," wrote Carl Robichaud for the Century Foundation in 2007. "The coalition’s inability to establish security, and its subsequent failure to stand up an effective police training effort, forced it to rely upon hired help."

Not much has changed. DynCorp still gets millions of dollars in U.S.-government contracts to reform and stand up the Afghan police, but according to Chatterjee, the $653 million already spent in this area has been an abysmal failure and the police are virtually useless. However, DynCorp thrives and is already looking forward to new contracts – funded with a fresh $2 billion under Obama’s plan. "[We’re] seeing the potential for increased demand for our services in Afghanistan," said DynCorp CEO William L. Ballhaus in February.

Security training and protection – even the massive private mobilization to house, feed, clothe, transport, and guard U.S. military and other personnel – is one thing. There are also huge private contracts going to American companies involved in rebuilding and humanitarian aid. Afghanistan has received far less than Iraq for aid and reconstruction – about $6.9 billion through USAID since 2002 – and critics complain much of it has gone down the slippery black hole that is Kabul when it isn’t going into corporate bank accounts and the gleeful hands of local operators.

"Many contractors are widely regarded as inefficient, absorbing a high volume of funds in consultant costs and profits while providing work that is of variable quality, relevance, and impact, and all done with very little transparency," warned a recent field report by OxFam America [.pdf].

"I don’t think you’re going to see much difference," said Robert Young Pelton, war correspondent and author of License to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, who calls it all part of the "systematic abuse of our money by the Afghan government." The result: no one is happy.

Right now, "everybody is being whipsawed because they are trying to do both, they are fighting a war and doing nation-building," and there will be an ongoing need for private contractors, whether they be for security or otherwise, to fill the yawning gap. These days, he said, "it’s just the way wars are fought."

And lost, some might say. If the core of Obama’s new mission is to win over local populations in an effort to "clear, hold, and build," the looming shadow army and its formidable footprint on Afghanistan may not be an optimal selling point. But ironically, without it, there would be no chance for such a mission at all.

In 2007, war privatization expert Peter W. Singer, author of the Brookings report "Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Go to War Without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency," called war privatization "an addiction that is quickly spiraling to a breakdown" and asked whether "leaders have the will to just say no?"

It looks like, despite a new president and a new war strategy, the answer, sadly, is "no."

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos