Contractors welcome military surge in Afghanistan

Contractors working with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan are eager for the increased military presence expected within the coming months.

During a roundtable of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, eight executives representing companies doing reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan said they were optimistic more U.S. troops would make it safer and easier for them to complete their projects.

"We can't wait," said Dick Owens of International Relief and Development Inc. "There are expectations that implementing partners will be able to build in advance of cleared and held territory… but that is a reach."

James Boomgard, president and chief executive officer of Development Alternatives Inc., said the military surge is important since increases in civilian staffing tend to occur within safety zones such as camps and bases.

"We work outside the wire, that's how we get development work done," Boomgard said.

The security situation and the physical separation between contractors and agency oversight officials occasionally lead to "phoning it in," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the subcommittee.

"In other countries it's regular daily, weekly, monthly interactions [with government officials]," Boomgard acknowledged. "In Afghanistan it's more reports and e-mails."

The executives also said they deal with substantial turnover among USAID employees. The revolving-door challenge isn't exclusive to the public sector, however. The executives said their companies face high turnover among the Afghan nationals they hire.

Still, all the roundtable participants said Afghans make up the majority of their workforce in Afghanistan.

"We have extremely loyal Afghan staff," said Dick McCall of Creative Associated International. "They're a good source of intelligence, they're out on the front lines, and if there is a potential security threat they are able to accommodate and adapt to make sure they get the job done."

McCaskill said she was surprised by the degree to which contractors were hiring Afghans, particularly since companies struggled to hire Iraqis in Iraq.

One explanation might be that the security concerns in Afghanistan are different from those in Iraq, according to Patrick Bryski, a principal for Deloitte LLP.

"Iraqis were afraid they'd get bumped off if they worked with us," Bryski said. "There is not that fear in Afghanistan. Also, the security protocol in terms of vetting the background of Iraqi personnel was significantly more challenging. There were concerns about Baathists coming back into the workforce -- we didn't want to be hiring former terrorists or insurgents."

Owens said his company has found vetting and security are issues in Afghanistan, as well, and contribute to turnover.

Despite the risks, the executives said working with Afghans is crucial to their success.

"You can't do successful development work if you're doing it all with outsiders," Boomgard said. "In the past four to five years, we've seen an enormous increase in capacity of professional Afghan staff to lead the development efforts."

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