WASHINGTON – Heavy U.S. reliance on private security in Afghanistan has helped to line the pockets of the Taliban and threatens the safety of coalition troops because contractors often don't vet local recruits and wind up hiring warlords and thugs, Senate investigators said Thursday.
The report by the Senate Armed Services Committee follows a separate congressional inquiry in June that concluded that trucking contractors pay tens of millions of dollars a year to local warlords for convoy protection.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate panel, said he is worried the U.S. is unknowingly fostering the growth of Taliban-linked militias and endanger U.S. and coalition troops at a time when Kabul is struggling to recruit its own soldiers and police officers.
"Almost all are Afghans. Almost all are armed," Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said of the army of young men working under U.S. contracts.
"These contractors threaten the security of our troops and risk the success of our mission," he told reporters. "There is significant evidence that some security contractors even work against our coalition forces, creating the very threat that they are hired to combat."
"We need to shut off the spigot of U.S. dollars flowing into the pockets of warlords and power brokers who act contrary to our interests and contribute to the corruption that weakens the support of the Afghan people for their government," he added.
The Defense Department doesn't necessarily disagree but warns that firing the estimated 26,000 private security personnel operating in Afghanistan in the near future isn't practical.
This summer, U.S. forces in Afghanistan pledged to increase their oversight of security contractors and set up two task forces to look into allegations of misconduct and to track the money spent, particularly among lower-level subcontractors.
The Defense Contract Management Agency has increased the number of auditors and support staff in the region by some 300 percent since 2007. And in September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top war commander in Afghanistan, directed his staff to consider the impact that contract spending has on military operations.
But military officials and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee warn that ending the practice of hiring local guards could worsen the security situation in Afghanistan.
They say providing young Afghan men with employment can prevent them from joining the ranks of Taliban fighters. And bringing in foreign workers to do jobs Afghans can do is likely to foster resentment, they say.
Also, contract security forces fill an immediate need at a time when U.S. forces are focused on operations, commanders say.
"As the security environment in Afghanistan improves, our need for (private security contractors) will diminish," Petraeus told the Senate panel in July. "But in the meantime, we will use legal, licensed and controlled (companies) to accomplish appropriate missions."
Levin says he isn't suggesting that the U.S. stop using private security contractors altogether. But, he adds, the U.S. must reduce the number of local security guards and improve the vetting process of new hires if there's any hope of reversing a trend that he says damages the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
His report represents the broadest look at Defense Department security contracts so far, with a review of 125 of these agreements between 2007 and 2009.
The review concludes there were "systemic failures" in the management of the contracts, including "widespread" failures "to adequately vet, train and supervise armed security personnel."
The panel's report highlights two cases in which security contracting firms ArmorGroup and EOD Technology relied on personnel linked to the Taliban.
Last week, EOD Technology was one of eight security firms hired by the State Department under a $10 billion contract to provide protection for diplomats.
A statement released by EOD Technology said the Lenoir City, Tenn.-based company had been encouraged to hire local Afghans and that it provided the names of its employees to the military for screening. The company said the military has never made it aware of any problems with its handling of the contract.
In the case of ArmorGroup, the Senate panel says the company repeatedly relied on warlords to find local guards, including the uncle of a known Taliban commander. The uncle, nicknamed "Mr. White" by ArmorGroup after a character in the violent movie "Reservoir Dogs," was eventually killed after a U.S. raid that uncovered a cache of weapons, including anti-tank land mines.
ArmorGroup, based in McLean, Va., lost a separate contract this year protecting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after allegations surfaced that guards engaged in lewd behavior and sexual misconduct at their living quarters.
Susan Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Wackenhut Services, ArmorGroup's parent company, said the company only engaged workers from local villages upon the "recommendation and encouragement" of U.S. special operations troops.
Pitcher said that ArmorGroup stayed in "close contact" with the military personnel "to ensure that the company was constantly acting in harmony with, and in support of, U.S. military interests and desires."
The allegation that contractors rely on warlords for local hiring is not new. Last June, a Democratic House investigation led by Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney concluded that trucking companies had "little choice" but to pay local warlords "in what amounts to a vast protection racket."
Army criminal investigators are examining the allegations, specifically looking at whether companies hired under a $2 billion Pentagon contract to transport food, water, fuel and ammunition to troops were paying up to $4 million a week to insurgent groups.
In August, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that private security contractors would have to cease operations by the end of the year. The workers, he said, would have to either join the government security forces or stop work because they were undermining Afghanistan's police and army and contributing to corruption.
U.S. officials responded that they shared the goal but wanted to move slow enough that military efforts weren't impacted.
Levin says he blames lost money to the Taliban on a lack of government oversight until this year. He previously has blamed the Bush administration for not devoting enough resources to the war in general.
Led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, committee Republicans endorsed the investigative findings in a voice vote last month. But in a statement included in the report, they said Levin's investigation "falls short of providing a more robust discussion of how slim our options were at the time."