The U.S. military has only minimal knowledge of - and exercises virtually no control over - the thousands of Afghans it indirectly pays to guard its installations, including "warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery" and to the Taliban, Senate investigators said in a blistering report released Thursday.
The bipartisan report, compiled after a year-long investigation, notes that the military has recently launched its own investigations of the situation and has taken some steps to address it. In one of the most significant steps, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has issued new contractor guidelines.
Still, the Senate investigation documents a failure to properly vet, train and supervise Afghan security subcontractors, hired by U.S. and other international firms under multimillion-dollar military contracts.
That failure has cost American lives, undermined the U.S. mission and the Afghan government, and "helped play into the hands of the enemy," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Some of the Afghan security subcontractors, Levin told reporters Thursday, are "creating the very threat they are hired to combat."
Committee staff reviewed more than 125 Defense Department security contracts dated between 2007 and 2009 and provided a detailed account of two in which subcontractors had direct and well-known ties to the Taliban. The report recounts an instance in which the military raided a Taliban meeting being held at the house of a subcontractor. It also notes instances in which security subcontractors were believed by U.S. military intelligence to be Iranian agents.
According to the U.S. Central Command, the report said, there were more than 112,000 Defense Department contractor personnel in Afghanistan as of April 30. As of May, more than 26,000 armed private security personnel - nearly all of them Afghans - worked for the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies.
Subcontracted Afghans provide perimeter security for U.S. forward operating bases, civilian installations and development projects, as well as for the truck convoys that carry most of the food, fuel, weapons and other supplies for the U.S.-led coalition.
In congressional testimony in December, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged concern that the United States was indirectly funding warlords and the Taliban. In June, a House subcommittee investigation found that Afghan private security contractors ran a "protection racket" in which militias, some tied to the Taliban, received money to protect supply convoys.
Early this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to disband private security contracting firms. This week, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry announced that it had begun disarming those companies that are unlicensed.
In a letter Tuesday to Levin, Gates said the report had helped the Defense Department "understand the nature of the problems associated with contracting in Afghanistan." He said oversight has already been expanded in an effort to "benefit our forces on the ground while not providing aid to our enemies."
The military has been reluctant to remove U.S. troops from combat and other duties to protect the supply convoys. But in the wake of the earlier subcommittee report, it has looked for alternatives, including using Afghan national security forces to guard the trucks. The next step of Karzai's phase-out of the private security firms, U.S. military officials said, will target those providing convoy escorts. Replacement of the "static" security discussed in the Senate committee's report will come at a later date, officials said.
Karzai has said he plans to incorporate the private guards into the armed forces. But that is seen as a monumental task, given the power of the warlords to whom many of the guards owe their loyalty, and the government's inability to match their pay scale.
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The report and its conclusions were adopted without objection in a voice vote by the Armed Services Committee last week, and the 86-page document was declassified with few redactions.
An addendum signed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking minority member, and other Republicans said that while the report demonstrates "the risks of using private security contractors," it would be wrong to conclude that all were disloyal and that their use "always decreased the security of U.S. and Coalition forces, or . . . inevitably undercut the Afghan government."
The Republicans noted that there were few other "feasible options" available in Afghanistan until recently, given the large U.S. deployment in Iraq and the limited number of U.S. and coalition troops available for such tasks. They also faulted the report for failure "to acknowledge the positive impact of providing employment" to Afghans.
One lengthy narrative in the report illustrated the committee's findings in detail. In March 2007, it said, the military contracted with California-based Environmental Chemical Corp. to construct a base for the Afghan Air Corps on the site of a former Soviet air base at Shindand, in Herat province. The company subcontracted with the North American subsidiary of ArmorGroup, a British company, to provide site security at the base.
ArmorGroup, according to the report, subcontracted the task to two men identified in company documents as local "warlords," whom it nicknamed "Mr. White" and "Mr. Pink" after characters in the 1992 Quentin Tarantino movie "Reservoir Dogs," about hapless criminals who turn on each other after a jewelry heist. At least one of the two was recommended to ArmorGroup by military personnel at a U.S. forward operating base adjacent to the air base, the report said.
In July 2007, Mr. White was ambushed and shot just outside the air base, leading guards loyal to him to leave their posts and seek revenge against Pink forces they believed responsible. White survived but was killed by Pink in a firefight in the local bazaar that December. Pink was reportedly "holed up with the Taliban" after the shooting, the report said.
Despite his reported Taliban links, ArmorGroup continued to employ Pink, identified in U.S. military documents as a "mid-level Taliban manager," until the contractor received reports that guards under Pink's command were providing him with military security information."
Meanwhile, the contractor replaced White with his brother, identified as Mr. White II.
In August 2008, U.S. and Afghan forces conducted an operation on a house in the village of Azizabad, south of Herat, intended to kill or capture a high-value Taliban commander during a meeting with insurgents.
U.S. airstrikes were called in, resulting in the deaths of dozens of civilians. The incident sparked outrage throughout Afghanistan and led to a military apology and a change in coalition airstrike guidelines.
A U.S. Army investigation later found that some of the insurgents in the building "may have been security contractors or subcontractors for ArmorGroup," the report said. In fact, it said, the house belonged to Mr. White II, and he and seven men employed as security guards were among those killed.
"In addition," the report said, "a search of the raid site revealed 'extensive stores of weapons, explosives, [and] intelligence materials.' "