The US government, military planners, and even the lowly US taxpayer have no idea where and how dollars are being spent in the war on terror in Afghanistan, and 9 Years In, U.S. finally tries to get a grip on Warzone Contractors.
More good news from Afghanistan: the U.S. military has no idea where the billions it’s spending on warzone contractors is actually ending up. And nine years into the war, the Pentagon has barely started the long, laborious process of figuring it out.
Rear Admiral Kathleen Dussault just arrived in Kabul about a week and a half ago as the commander of Task Force 2010, a new unit established to ensure that the military’s dependence on contractors for everything from laundry to armed security doesn’t end up undermining Afghanistan’s stability in the process. That’s no hypothetical concern: a congressional report last week found that Afghan, U.S. and Mideastern trucking companies who have a piece of a $2.16 billion logistics contract with the military pay about $4 million every week in protection money to warlords and Taliban insurgents.
Enter Dussault, one of the military’s few flag officers to specialize in contracting and the former commander of the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan. Her priority for Task Force 2010’s joint military/civilian team of auditors and investigators, Dussault tells Danger Room in a phone interview from Afghanistan, “is to put a laser-like focus on the flow of money, and to understand exactly how money is flowing from the contracting authorities to the prime contractor and the subcontractors they work with.” It’s imperative, she adds, to get contractors to “understand they have to be more specific about who their network is and what their subcontractors are.”
The basic problem is that the military structures its Afghanistan contracts in such a way that doesn’t actually know where its money goes after it inks a deal with, for instance, a trucking company to deliver goods to a military base. “Service contracting has traditionally been an omnibus result,” Dussault says. “You deliver that service. We don’t tell you how to deliver that service.”
In practice, that means the oversight the U.S. exercises over these warzone contracts is even weaker than the deals to build planes or ships — which is saying something, since those contracts regularly go over budget and slip deadlines. But at least there are reimbursable-cost vouchers and internal audits and reports on sub-contractors when the Pentagon buys gear. Once these deals are inked, the U.S. hasn’t been particularly interested in whatever shady sub-contractors a firm in Afghanistan hires to grease the wheels.
After Task Force 2010 follows the money trail, it’ll make recommendations to the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s military command in Afghanistan, about how contracting practices need to change. “I would suspect that we’re going to recommend limiting some partnerships that we’re in right now, apply more controls in a number of them, and in some cases, we’re going to need to walk away from some providers,” Dussault predicts, declining to comment on any specific contract or contractor.
Then there are the most controversial contractors of all: the not-so-small army of private security contractors who guard military installations, protect contractor convoys and, in some cases, kill Afghan civilians and filch rifles intended for the Afghan police by using the names of South Park characters. (At least 14,000 of them, according to September testimony from Arnold Fields, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.) ”One of our failings” in Afghanistan, Dussault concedes, has been to “lump private security contractors to the delivery of a service [and] apply good governance” to those contracts.
To correct it, she’ll work with yet another new contracting task-force, an entity called Task Force Spotlight — subtle! — and commanded by Army Brigadier General Margaret Boor, the chief of staff of the Defense Logistics Agency. Spotlight will look at the armed contractors’ rules of engagement and other day-to-day tactical behavior for the specific contracts those companies hold. From there, Dussault explaines, “our mandate is to operationalize the guidance” that Spotlight produces in order to come up with a more sensible and harmonious set of rules for armed security firms doing business with the military in combat zones more generally.
John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, says shedding light on these contracts is a must. But it won’t be easy. “There is a critical shortage of contracting officers who understand counterinsurgency and are willing and able to deploy to conflict zones, but their services will be essential to providing greater transparency in subcontracting operations,” Nagl, the co-author of a recent CNAS report on wartime contracting, tells Danger Room.
All this is in the very early stages. Not all of Dussault’s approximately 20 task-force members are currently assembled. Boor isn’t even in Afghanistan yet. And it’s worth wondering if the sudden proliferation of contractor-oversight entities — there’s also Inspector General Field’s office — represents an inadvertent division of focus. (Dussault doesn’t think so, saying “this is an opportunity to fuse together all the partnered efforts that are happening in theater” on oversight.)
But Dussault is marking time with a stopwatch. She said she expects to issue her first batch of recommendations about contractor reform in September to General David Petraeus, whom President Obama tapped last week as the new commander in Afghanistan.