Afghanistan: Pentagon contractors entwined with 'pro-Taliban' warlords

A Senate investigation finds that Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan are inadvertently helping the Taliban and becoming ensnared in the turf wars of local warlords.

By , Staff writer

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    A US contractor looks away from a dust cloud whipped up by a helicopter departing over the gatepost at Combat Outpost Terra Nova in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 19.
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The US military has inadvertently been funneling American taxpayer dollars to Afghan warlords who have been linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery, and other “pro-Taliban, anti-coalition” activities, according to a detailed report released Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It is an investigation that at times seems lifted straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film, with local thugs nicknamed “Mr. Pink” and “Mr. White” in command of private militias that are waging bloody turf battles for a greater share of contracting dollars – and who may be using arms and ammunition purchased with these dollars to aid the Taliban.

The report raises questions that go to the heart of the US mission in Afghanistan. There are concerns that guards paid by the US military but controlled by local strongmen could harm US troops or inadvertently place the troops in the middle of proxy wars.

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Moreover, investigators argue that private contractors are undermining the US exit strategy in Afghanistan, since Afghan soldiers and police trainees routinely drop out of training to take more lucrative jobs as guards hired by private firms. This jeopardizes the US military's mission to train competent Afghan forces so that US troops can eventually leave the country.

The solution, Senate aides argue, is in tightening enforcement of contracting laws already on the book. But though senior military officials say they are well aware of the gravity of the contracting problem in Afghanistan, they add that US officials who oversee contractors are overworked and often unaware of the laws at their disposal – or the often-complex ties between Afghan power brokers and insurgents that make unregulated cash payouts to people who are essentially militia members perilous.

What's more, taking these warlords off the Pentagon payroll may entail "huge risks," Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan acknowledged, that could force US troops to make some tough and at times unsavory compromises.

Chronic lack of oversight

While the charges are shocking, they are not necessarily surprising – the lack of oversight surrounding what often amount to classic protection rackets has been clear for some time, military analysts point out. In a February report, Senate investigators discovered that employees of a Blackwater subsidiary were not only riding armored vehicles like stagecoaches and wildly shooting weapons, but also pilfering rifles meant for local trainees.

In the weeks to come, determining how to enforce restrictions on contractors with strikingly similar pattern of lapses will be the order of the day for Pentagon officials, who have long wrestled with corruption and violent behavior among contractors on their payroll.

Senate investigators, for their part, have concluded that “the Department of Defense has failed to address serious deficiencies” in the performance of private security contractors, even when Pentagon audits turned up considerable evidence that wrongdoing was taking place.

In the short term, the lack of oversight costs the lives of US troops, say top US commanders who are keenly aware of this point. US generals have cited “significant evidence that some security contractors even work against our coalition forces – creating the very threat that they are hired to combat,” Senator Levin said. “These contractors threaten the security of our troops and the risk success of our mission.”

Pentagon foots bill for incompetent guards

In other cases, the report also suggests that contractors are simply not doing what they are paid to do, resulting at times in tragic ineptitude. Key installations have gone unprotected by local guards who received inadequate training from contractors. In at least one instance, Afghans hired with funds from the Pentagon’s Commanders Emergency Response Program shot and killed a US Marine.

The investigation found that the guards routinely used opium and had received no training in how to use their weapons.

Says a senior US military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter with the media: “The US military knows very well how serious the contracting problem is. We’re certainly aware of incidents where folks are getting US taxpayer dollars that haven’t been spent in the best of ways.”

While Levin advised that the US military take steps to integrate Afghan militia paid through these contracts into formal structures like the Afghan military and police force, he acknowledged that for now US commanders will have to make some tough choices.

“The decision of whether or not to utilize a strongman or warlord has got to be made at the highest levels of the chain of command,” Levin said.

“There will be times when our top level people are going to want to take some risks and utilize people that are not ideal, but which under the circumstances are the best that we can do,” he added. “This is Afghanistan.”

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