Senators find contractors too close to Afghan warlords

A year-long Senate Armed Services Committee investigation has revealed that a number of private security firms working in Afghanistan under Defense Department contracts have hired Afghan warlords and powerbrokers with links to murder, kidnapping and bribery -- and the Taliban.

The investigation, detailed in an 89-page report released Thursday, also revealed widespread failures in contractor performance, including untrained guards, insufficient and unserviceable weapons and unmanned posts, as well as gaps in government oversight that allowed the failures to persist.

Committee investigators reviewed more than 125 Defense Department security contracts in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009 and found systemic failures that have, at times, put U.S. military personnel and their mission in Afghanistan at risk.

"All too often our reliance on private security contractors in Afghanistan has empowered warlords and powerbrokers operating outside Afghan government control," Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Thursday. "There is significant evidence that some security contractors even work against our coalition forces, creating the very threat that they are hired to combat."

The report focuses heavily on two contractors in particular -- ArmorGroup North America, a U.S. subsidiary of the British firm G4S, and EOD Technology, which the committee said is registered as a foreign corporation in Tennessee.

Neither firm had seen the report at press time. The committee released the details of its investigations to reporters Thursday morning, but embargoed the information until 5 p.m.

But when asked for comment, a spokesman for G4S said ArmorGroup hired workers from two local villages at the encouragement of U.S. Special Forces.

The firm, the spokesman said, remained in close contact with Special Forces personnel "to ensure that the company was constantly acting in harmony with, and in support of, U.S. military interests and desires."

An EODT spokesman said the firm received approval for all of their Afghan hires and has not been advised by the military of the problems highlighted in the committee report. The firm, the spokesman said, "stands ready to engage the U.S. military or other stakeholders about these issues in order to improve our internal processes and contract performance."

The spokesman added that EODT is not a foreign-owned business, but instead is an employee-owned firm incorporated in Delaware and based in Tennessee.

According to the report, Environmental Chemical Corp., a construction and environmental remediation company hired by the Air Force Center on Energy and Environment, contracted with ArmorGroup in 2007 to perform security during their work at Shindand Airbase in western Afghanistan's Herat province.

The committee's investigation found that ArmorGroup relied on rival Afghan warlords -- including some considered Taliban supporters -- to provide the manpower for the company's security force at the base. According to the report, ECC's security manager said the warlords were recommended by U.S. military personnel, but a military official told the committee he had recommended only one as a point of contact within the community.

During the life of the contract, one of the warlords killed another in a shootout at an Afghan bazaar. ECC's security manager said the shooting was "kind of like a mafia thing. If you rub somebody out, you'll get a bigger piece of the pie," the report states.

Another warlord hired by ArmorGroup was killed during an August 2008 raid on a Taliban meeting being held at his house. A search of his house uncovered several weapons, explosives and intelligence materials, according to the report.

EOD Technology, meanwhile, was hired by the Army under a $7 million contract to provide security at the National Training Center for the Afghan police in Adraskan, which is just north of Shindad.

Like ArmorGroup, EODT sought out local powerbrokers for their security force, including one who the military believes raised money for the Taliban. Another Afghan hired by EODT is a former police officer who reportedly works with a hostile foreign government.

One local powerbroker who recommended men to EODT was reported in 2003 to be the leader of a militant group operating in and around Herat province. In addition to providing manpower, he lent EODT various weapons, including Soviet-made PKM machine guns and AK-47s.

Additionally, EODT hired some personnel who had been fired by ArmorGroup for passing sensitive security information to a warlord with ties to the Taliban.

In an Oct. 5 letter to Levin, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the report "has helped DoD understand the nature of the problems associated with contracting in Afghanistan." Gates emphasized steps already underway to improve the military oversight and use of private security contractors.

Gates also pointed to a Sept. 8 memo from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, emphasizing the negative operational effects of contracting with some local powerbrokers and providing guidance on how commanders should approach contracting.

"Through the new programs we have implemented, I believe DoD has taken significant steps to benefit our forces on the ground while not providing aid to our enemies," Gates wrote.

Armed Services Committee Republicans acknowledge that the EODT and ArmorGroup examples highlight the risks of using private security contractors. But they argued in comments attached to the report that the investigation did not prove that the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan always decreased the security of U.S. and coalition forces.

The Republican senators urged that the "facts require a more nuanced interpretation" and the report does not place enough emphasis on security changes taking place in Afghanistan now.

"To the extent that the committee report implies that the decision to rely on private security contractors in Afghanistan was a grave mistake that undercut our larger strategic objectives there, the report simply fails to acknowledge the lack of other feasible options given the commitment of U.S. forces to Iraq and the limited number of U.S. coalition and Afghan Security Forces available at the time to provide routine security throughout Afghanistan," the Republicans wrote.

They added that the report singles out for extensive discussion only "two major case studies," asserting it does not give a balanced view of the advantages and disadvantages of using private security contractors when other options were limited.

The GOP lawmakers noted that Petraeus testified in July that as the security situation in Afghanistan improves, the need for private security contractors will diminish.

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