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SASC Report Shows Contracting for Security Guards in Afghanistan Run Amok

A new investigation from the Senate Armed Services Committee shows that private security contractors in Afghanistan “rely on warlords and strongmen” to provide security guards that watch US bases. These guards often have ties to the Taliban.

That’s what the Senate Armed Services Committee found after a year-long investigation into 125 contracts held by private security firms in Afghanistan. In a report released today, the committee discovered that the firms rely on “warlords and strongmen” to supply them with security guards for protecting U.S. military bases, some of whom kill one another and moonlight as insurgents attacking U.S. troops. And the Defense Department barely vets the security companies it hires. At least one of those companies just won another contract with the State Department — to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“There is significant evidence that some security contractors even work against our coalition forces, creating the very threat that they are hired to combat,” Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, told reporters Thursday. “These contractors threaten the security of our troops and risk the success of our mission.”

I would argue that the mission risks the success of the mission, but this report is one reason why. The US has come to rely on private security firms for much of the war operations that were the province of the military in previous decades. The results are frequently inefficient, careless and totally counter-productive. In addition, local partners in wars of occupation frequently turn into local enemies, with the insurgency much more able to rally the population to their cause than the occupying force. Put that all together and you have this report.

While Levin finds it impractical to stop relying on private security contractors, somehow we made it through a host of other wars without their presence. It’s only “impractical” because it would require a lot more troops in the field, which would appear to escalate the war. But for the past decade, we have artificially reduced the real numbers of troops on the ground by outsourcing operations to unaccountable mercenary firms. And this report shows clearly how that doesn’t work. That seems impractical to me, and if as an end result you cannot muster the public support to fight wars, I’d say that’s a feature, not a bug.

Spencer has done a fabulous job putting it all together over at Danger Room, and I urge you to read his take. But here’s one more taste:

But perhaps the most troubling case the bipartisan inquiry uncovered occurred elsewhere in Herat, where the Air Force and a company called ECC awarded a $5.1 million sub-contract to ArmorGroup in 2007 to protect the Shindand Airbase. Yes, that ArmorGroup — the ones who did shots out of each others’ butts while ostensibly protecting the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Since ArmorGroup didn’t have any existing staff near Shindand, it turned to Timor Shah and Nadir Khan for their recommendations.

Shah and Khan were odd choices for character references. Internal ArmorGroup documents discovered by the committee found references to them as “two feuding warlords” operating around the airbase. Even knowing their questionable character, ArmorGroup used the men it would dub “Mr. White” and “Mr. Pink” — it’s a Reservoir Dogs reference — to supply 30 men to guard Shindad, even though it claims to have never paid them directly. Within months, the guards were beefing amongst themselves and with Afghan security forces in the area, shooting off guns and threatening to kill one another.

But all hell broke loose in December 2007, when Mr. Pink murdered Mr. White in a gun battle at a local bazaar, shooting him in the head, the side and the hip.

“It was kind of like a mafia thing,” an employee for ECC told committee staff. “If you rub somebody out, you’ll get a bigger piece of the pie.”

Even after this, the contractor worked with “Mr. White II” and “Mr. White III,” the dead warlord’s brothers. Both of them supported the Taliban. Finally, after a raid involving the Mr. White’s in a firefight against the Taliban, they were fired. But ArmorGroup still has a contract.

The contracting woes could end tomorrow by having the military staff its own wars.

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David Dayen

David Dayen