War-Profiteering and Afghanistan

 In Afghanistan


Blackwater Chief Executive Officer Erik Prince defends his company’s
performance in Iraq before the House oversight committee in 2007. (Associated Press.)

In the same room where the famous Truman Committee gathered for its investigations into World War II war-profiteering, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan held it’s opening session today.

The AP reports:

The U.S. has devoted more than $30 billion to rebuilding Afghanistan. Yet despite the hard lessons learned in Iraq, where the U.S. has spent nearly $51 billion on reconstruction, the effort in Afghanistan is headed down the same path, the watchdogs told a new panel investigating wartime contracts.

“Before we go pouring more money in, we really need to know what we’re trying to accomplish (in Afghanistan),” said Ginger Cruz, deputy special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. “And at what point do you turn off the spigot so you’re not pouring money into a black hole?”

Better cooperation among federal agencies, more flexible contracting rules, constant oversight and experienced acquisition teams are among the changes urged by the officials in order to make sure money isn’t wasted and contractors don’t cheat.

Most of the publicity around this issue has been about contractors that have become household names like Blackwater and Halliburton. Other less-known incidents include one regarding the firm DynCorp while it was providing guards to President Karzai in Afghanistan. During a public appearance the guard ended up pushing a number of people and slapping one who turned out to be the minister of transportation. It won’t surprise anyone that slapping someone has somewhat the same connotation as throwing your shoe! The incident  became a PR disaster and a symbol of western arrogance and brutality.

But these high profile incidents, as troubling as they are, are the tip of the iceberg. Another perhaps more telling example includes Dyncorp. Dyncorp hired retired American police officers with no knowledge of Afghanistan to train Afghan police. Getting this piece right was crucial: the UN has found that rebuilding a police force is more important than the army in post-conflict reconstruction.  Long-time militia members got three weeks of training and with no follow-up or mentoring. We the taxpayers spent $860 million dollars to train 40,000 police and got next to nothing in return. Richard Holbrooke, now the new U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, called the DynCorp program an “appalling joke”.

But the problem with these wartime contractors is not just waste, fraud and abuse. At the DynCorp police program’s core was strategic confusion. This confusion reflects the lack of an overall coherent strategy for Afghanistan along with the U.S./Nato overemphasis on military tactics (or in this case counterinsurgency). When the police trainees did end up working they were employed for counterinsurgency:

“Having the police in the trenches fighting the Taliban is not a successful sign of counterinsurgency and means that army and police roles are being mixed up, which leaves the population bereft of law and order,” said Chris Alexander, the deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan. (This quote, and much of the information about DynCorp above is from Ahmed Rashid’s excellent Descent Into Chaos about U.S. policy and war-fighting in Afghanistan.)

War profiteering is inevitable when a country begins to outsource its foreign policy. While contracts to these firms have grown, government agencies like USAID and the State Department have been woefully underfunded. We need to end the outsourcing and rebuild our foreign service. We wish the commission well and will keep an eye on this issue — especially as it relates to Afghanistan — as the year goes on.

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