Afghan military and officials leave Kandahar city during fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Afghan military and officials leave Kandahar city during fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Sidiqullah Khan / AP

Industry Groups Work to Help an Unknown Number of Contractors Get Out of Afghanistan

“There’s still quite a few employees and their families over there that we want to get out,” said Howie Lind, president of the International Stability Operations Association.

Industry groups met with senior Biden administration officials on Friday about the perilous situation for federal contractors and their employees in Afghanistan in an effort to facilitate evacuations for those in danger.  

Leaders with the Professional Services Council, International Stability Operations Association and National Defense Industrial Association met with officials from the State and Defense departments and the U.S Agency for International Development to discuss bottlenecks in the special immigration visa program and evacuation processes following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan. President Biden said during remarks on Friday afternoon that about 6,000 troops are now on the ground in Kabul to support the evacuations. Since August 14, 13,000 people have been airlifted out, Biden said. 

None of the three groups knew how many contractors their members still had in country. PSC said the group did not have that number available. NDIA wasn’t sure, but referred Government Executive to a Defense News story from Thursday that said there were 7,800 contractors in Afghanistan in July (5,100 of whom were third-country nationals or locals), citing “the most recent Pentagon quarterly contractor census report.” Howie Lind, president and executive director of ISOA, said the association has “several hundred, probably up to 1,000 or more, I mean it’s not clear exactly” including contractors’ families. 

“Most of our companies have been in Afghanistan for the last 20 years, so we have a huge amount of interest in this,” Lind told Government Executive on Thursday. The group represents about 120 companies involved in overseas contingency contracting. While many contractors began leaving the country after President Biden’s announcement in April that the United States would withdraw forces from Afghanistan by the end of August, not all made it out before the Taliban takeover. “There's still quite a few employees and their families over there that we want to get out,” he said. Those still in Afghanistan include some contractors themselves as well as local employees of contractors. 

The association has been in close communication with the State and Defense departments and USAID, Lind said. “[Friday] is really the ramp up of okay ‘how can the government really get going to get these people out of there,” said Lind. 

The industry groups said they are supporting government efforts to process special immigrant visas by providing employment verification. On Thursday, NDIA released a statement urging contractors that employed Afghan nationals to fill out this form, “which will be shared with the State and Defense departments,” the association said. “Those who qualify for the special immigrant visas worked for U.S. contractors for at least one year as of Oct. 7, 2001, and who may be employed through Dec. 31, 2023, according to the State Department. Applicants must be under serious threat for their safety as a consequence of their employment.” 

Following the meeting with government officials, PSC on Friday afternoon put out a statement saying that senior officials asked the industry groups to “leverage their existing human resources data and information to enable the expeditious processing of SIV applications.” Additional meetings between the groups and government agencies were planned to address the crisis.

PSC––a trade association that represents over 400 companies that contract with the federal government––was focused on “the health and safety of in-country workers and their families,” said David Berteau, PSC president and CEO, in a statement on Tuesday. “These companies are also continuing to deliver the support required by the U.S. government under existing or modified contracts.” 

On May 13, the three associations sent a letter to State, Defense and USAID with questions about the future of U.S. contractors in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The coming withdrawal will “significantly affect security” and “create confusion regarding the ways in which contractors can best support the DoD drawdown and remaining U.S. government missions,” they wrote.  

Then on July 21, PSC sent another letter to the agencies about time-sensitive issues related to the withdrawal, such as special immigration visa applications. PSC called for the government to share more information with contractors. 

“These issues remain an important priority for PSC in the days to come,” Berteau said on Tuesday. 

Government Executive asked State, Defense and USAID for information about how many contractors they had in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s takeover, how many are there now, if they are working to evacuate them all and if any contracts need to be modified? 

The Defense Department referred Government Executive to CENTCOM for comment. “Interpreters assigned to units in Afghanistan were sourced by a variety of government contracted organizations who specialize in the recruitment process of locals for data tracking and information on Afghan interpreters, we refer you to government contracted agencies,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Karen Roxberry, a CENTCOM spokesperson. “The State Department has [the] lead on the special immigrant applications for visas to include at-risk Afghans who have supported U.S. forces over the years. I would refer you there for comment.”

The State Department declined to comment. USAID did not respond to a request for comment. 

As of April, 3,846 U.S. contractors have died in Afghanistan since 2001, the Associated Press reported

Also as of April, the Pentagon alone had spent $107.9 billion on contracted services in Afghanistan since fiscal 2002, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis. 

“The war in Afghanistan was not only a human tragedy and political disaster, but it was also a massive transfer of wealth from the American people to wealthy defense contractors,” tweeted Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under President Clinton, on August 17. 

Since its establishment in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2008, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been investigating the spending on reconstruction projects in the country. The reports, led by special IG John Sopko, foreshadowed many of the issues that have unfolded over the past week as well as speak to the situation for contractors. 

“Particularly in a contingency environment like Afghanistan, contracting is vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse. It is also susceptible to inappropriate and ineffective programming that at times undermined—or at least did not meaningfully advance—the reconstruction effort,” said a report issued in July. “Yet, despite its challenges, contracting is essential: There is no practical way that U.S. agencies can do what contractors do.” 

NEXT STORY: The Federal Pay Equity Quandary

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