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Rogue security companies threaten US gains in Afghanistan war

The Pentagon is dependent upon contractors in the Afghanistan war. But many of the security companies are undermining – or even working against –the US war effort.

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The Pentagon is beginning to grapple with the complexity of fixing what many now recognize as a deeply broken system. Though reforms are difficult to implement and come with their own risks, a failure to act now, say some US officials, may risk the entire US mission in Afghanistan.

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Some contracting problems have long been apparent to US officials. One of them is that some Defense Department contract money goes to warlords who run classic pay-for-protection rackets with their own private militias. What is also clear is that the attrition rate for legitimate Afghan security forces remains as high as 130 percent in some units.

"We get them trained up and certified, and the contractors hire them for more money," says T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Iraq and is now a fellow with the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

The delay in addressing a lack of oversight surrounding contractors who may also have ties to the Taliban has had consequences, Mr. Cordesman argues. The recent Senate Armed Services Committee report, for example, reflects concerns "that are seven or eight years old." Efforts to address them have been "extraordinarily slow" to take hold, he adds. "Time and again you have created risk to American soldiers. You have almost certainly caused Americans to be killed or wounded – and you have essentially strengthened the enemy."

Without greater controls on contracting dollars, "you have created a threat that is almost as great as the insurgency," he says. "And that is a government that has so many forces corrupting it that it can't win the support of the people."

The Pentagon is increasingly aware of this point and has begun to take a particularly hard look at its reliance on private security firms, which account for roughly 16 percent of all contractors, totaling more than 26,000 personnel operating in Afghanistan.

"We have absolutely no quality control of the people we're putting in these jobs," says Mr. Hammes, who recently completed a study on the strategic impact of contractors in war zones. "And we're authorizing them to use deadly force in the name of the United States."

Citing precisely this point, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that he wants many private security companies – including Blackwater – out of the country by year's end. But the enforcement of this decree remains unclear.

US officials, who continue to negotiate the matter behind the scenes, publicly say that while they agree with the spirit of the decree, the time line is unrealistic. Critics charge that it is an effort by Mr. Karzai tap into the profits of these lucrative companies by consolidating government control over them – a charge Karzai denies.

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