Stan Soloway

Poor records increase security risks

Contractors accused of funding the Taliban, but it's not that simple

Afghan nationals working for private security contractors in Afghanistan might be contributing money and inside information to the Taliban and various Afghan warlords, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report dated Sept. 28.

To be sure, the report is troubling. No one wants those hired to provide security for the U.S. missions in Afghanistan or elsewhere to pose a threat to those very missions or the personnel working on them. Although the report generated the usual chorus of horror about the use and role of contractors, its sole focus on contractors serves only to divert attention from a central challenge that complicates our missions there, whether we use contractors or not.

For one thing, the report is clear that, in many cases, the individuals in question were recommended to the security contractors by appropriately placed U.S. military personnel. More importantly, the report identifies a core problem that is largely unrelated to the sector performing the work but directly connected to the difficult dynamics of Afghanistan. As we have learned over the years, political, tribal and sectarian allegiances and alliances in Afghanistan are complex and ever-shifting. Additionally, U.S. military and coalition forces — and the companies and nongovernmental organizations operating in the country — are under tremendous statutory and other pressures to support the local economy by hiring as many Afghans and using as many local firms as possible.

This has created an inevitable conflict between mission objectives and security. As Defense Department officials testified before the Commission on Wartime Contracting, in a nation without an effective means to confirm an individual’s identity and with only limited technology to create comprehensive personnel databases, it is exceedingly difficult to properly vet employees — a problem complicated by the complex nature of regional and local relationships. That is a conundrum that affects every aspect of and every participant in our missions in Afghanistan.

That is not to say that the companies involved have done everything right or should not be held accountable for their work. Nor is it to diminish the importance of the issue. But simply demonizing contractors is meaningless, except perhaps as political theater. As a dozen members of the Senate committee said in an addendum to the report, we must also recognize the critically important work these firms do, the overall high quality and professionalism of that work, and the lack of a viable alternative. After all, without security, there is no development assistance; and without development assistance and significant efforts to support and build the Afghan economy, the U.S. mission cannot succeed on any level.

There is an additional irony here as well. U.S. development assistance policy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is to increasingly directly fund local entities and governments, bypassing U.S. development firms and nongovernmental organizations with the proven capacity for building the functional expertise to execute the mission. In addition to raising questions of performance and effectiveness, that strategy raises obvious questions of accountability, including those of the very kind that the Senate committee has raised with regard to private security firms. If our policy is to directly fund local entities, what controls can be implemented to ensure that funding does not get funneled to the enemy? Despite all good intentions, the unfortunate answer from experience might be not much.

The Senate report raises important questions and is worthy of additional discussion. But rather than focus on one piece of the puzzle, that discussion must address the entirety of our missions and goals in Afghanistan. To presume the challenges lie solely within one sector is to ignore broader and equally important ramifications.

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