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Contractors in Afghanistan are Fleecing the American Taxpayer

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Contractors in Afghanistan are Fleecing the American Taxpayer

Kyle T. Gaines

“Mercenary armies afford only slow, laborious, and insubstantial victories, while the losses they bring are sudden and spectacular”- Niccolo Machiavelli

It was an otherwise uneventful day in a year-long advisory tour in Kabul. I was the lead intelligence trainer helping to teach an advanced training class for Afghan helicopter pilots, aircrewmen, intelligence analysts, and medics. The instructors were a mix of NATO uniformed military advisors and defense contractors. At one point between classes, some of the other instructors and I began discussing the state of NATO’s mission in the country and the role defense contracting plays in the effort. “This whole arrangement is a fleecing of the American taxpayer” one of the contractor instructors observed. “If the American people had any idea that this is how contracts work in Afghanistan, they would shut the whole thing down immediately.”

His commentary struck me as both ironic and unsettling, and only served to confirm what I had already come to understand by this point in my tour. Here was a man with years of combat flying experience in the active duty military, who, upon transitioning to defense contracting, was openly criticizing the very industry in which he now made his livelihood. Further, there were nearly 27,000 defense contractors operating in the country at the time, outnumbering U.S. uniformed personnel by about 2:1. Could it really be that the contracting model the U.S.-led coalition continues to rely on is deeply flawed and ineffective on the ground?

Sadly, the answer was and remains an unequivocal and resounding yes. The defense contracting industry undeniably plays a critical role in the nation’s defense. From research and development, acquisitions, consulting, intelligence, cyber, logistics, and information technology, there are myriad ways the private sector makes valuable contributions that advance U.S. national security policy goals and keep Americans safe. But there are also many problems with how these operational support contracts are executed on the ground, which various U.S. government agencies have acknowledged for years. Unfortunately, the model the U.S.-led coalition is relying on for employing contractors in Afghanistan remains rife with poor accountability, ineffectiveness, and fundamental strategic communications issues. By extension, plans to expand the role of contractors in the country are misguided and dangerous. These challenges will only become more pronounced if the number of uniformed troops in the country decreases over the coming months, as major U.S. news outlets reported since late 2018. This drawdown might, as some have speculated, lead to the enactment of something resembling Erik Prince’s plan for Afghanistan, which centralizes contractors working at the operational and tactical levels.

I recently returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan as an intelligence advisor to an Afghan special operations aviation unit headquartered in Kabul. I trained and advised Afghan intelligence officers in providing intelligence support to special operations aviation missions during my tour. I also served as the team’s executive officer for the majority of the year, working daily with defense contractors who were employed on a variety of advisory and other operational support contracts. I saw firsthand the flaws, abuses, and issues surrounding the contracting model being utilized in the war. My position in an aviation unit also enabled me to spend time on many different installations and bases throughout the country, including Kandahar Airfield, Mazar-e-Sharif, Camp Morehead, Camp Hunter, Resolute Support Headquarters, Bagram Airfield, Camp Oqab, and Hamid Karzai International Airport. My collective experiences in the country have confirmed what U.S. government agencies have been reporting for years, and convinced me that the current contracting model is not working and requires an overhaul, especially if the entire war is to essentially be contracted out.

Oversight, Vetting, and Performance Accountability Shortfalls

One of the worst problems our team dealt with was poor contractor accountability. This issue is comprised of three interrelated components. First, there are too few Defense Department Contracting Officer’s Representatives in the country to keep tabs on all the contractors working in the country. A 2012 Government Accountability Office Report highlighted this problem seven years ago. The 2012 report states the Defense Department “does not have a sufficient number of Contracting Officer’s Representatives to oversee the numerous contracts in Afghanistan… some Contracting Officer’s Representatives were responsible for providing oversight to multiple contracts in addition to carrying out their primary military duty.”

My recent experiences indicate that this is still a substantial problem. We had about 500 contractors assigned to our advisory group of about 50 uniformed advisors, a 10 to 1 contractor to uniformed advisor ratio. Furthermore, two of our squadrons were located in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif respectively, making oversight even more difficult. We were simply too busy and outnumbered to adequately oversee all the contractors assigned to our unit.

Second, contractor managers were uncommitted to ensuring that vacant jobs were filled with qualified people. When I first arrived, our team had a career logistician filling the job of an aviation intelligence mentor and another career logistician filling the job of an aviation operations mentor. Not only did these two individuals lack the relevant subject matter expertise to effectively do their jobs, but they were also responsible for teaching soldiers of a non-Western army specialized skills with significant language and cultural barriers to overcome. The result was little progress on mentorship, with uniformed advisors having to spend an unreasonable amount of time and energy mentoring the “mentors”. This took our time and attention away from other more important concerns, such as advising the actual combat missions that our Afghan partners were flying regularly.

Once we finally removed those two employees, the company replaced them with two equally unqualified backfills. One was a former Army counter-intelligence agent slotted to fill the aviation intelligence job, and the other was a career infantryman picked for the aviation operations mentor job. By self-admission, neither of them knew anything about the subject matter they were supposed to be mentoring. Our intelligence mentor had spent a career doing counter-intelligence investigations and was now tasked with training Afghans in intelligence support to aviation missions. Our operations mentor had an impressive career in the infantry, but knew nothing about flight operations and had extremely limited computer skills. Neither of them remained at the unit for more than a few months. Eventually, we gave up on obtaining qualified individuals altogether. We figured vacant slots were better than mismatches because the former took up less of our time and energy.

In my entire year there, we were only able to actually recruit two out of six contract mentors on our team whose skills and expertise actually matched the position prerequisites. These mismatches all occurred within one 12-person advisory squadron over a 12-month period. I confirmed with our unit’s contracting officer that it is the company’s responsibility to validate whether an individual is qualified to fill a certain slot. This arrangement is obviously flawed as there seems to be no oversight of the contractor’s “validation.” . My observations on other bases and my conversations with peers and colleagues in other units confirmed widespread qualification mismatches elsewhere. Contractors would openly admit to us that their main concern was to fill as many slots as possible, since that is how they increased the value of their contracts for future years.

Third, there was almost no effort by contractor managers to ensure poor performers were held accountable. Poorly performing contractors were rarely fired and even when they were, they would usually get hired onto a different contract without even leaving the country, or onto the same contract after a short period. Overall, these companies made little to no attempt to enforce any quality control mechanisms that tracked poor performers, and the government did not adequately ensure that they did either. A 2015 Government Accountability Office study found that contractor performance was not being satisfactorily tracked in the “Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System”, which “provides a record, both positive and negative, on a given contractor during a specific period.” My recent experience and the experiences of others suggest that this is still not happening in a satisfactory way in Afghanistan.

A few months after a contractor advisor was fired by our unit for performing poorly, and my commander saw him in Kandahar doing almost the same job for a different advisory unit. The company made no attempt to remediate his performance issues or find someone more well-suited for the job. The company just moved him.  You might expect the Defense Department to stop something like this from happening, but it is likely that no one in the department in a relevant position of authority knew that this individual had been a poor performer because his performance record was probably not being tracked, or if it was, it almost certainly was transferred over to his follow-on unit or employer.

Similarly, the aforementioned counter-intelligence agent turned tactical intelligence mentor was fired from our unit for being both unqualified and for poor performance. This person was immediately moved to a sister advisory squadron within the same advisory group, over the strong objections from our team commander. In a third case, a maintenance mentor was let go for repeatedly speaking disparagingly to an Afghan in front of other Afghans. Culturally this is considered a serious transgression, and insider attacks have occurred as a result of less egregious incidents. This individual was putting his own safety, and the safety of every other advisor on the base at risk. After the intervention of our group commander, an Army colonel, we were able to get him fired. He was sent to another base within our organization only to return six months later to the same job.

Limited Effectiveness

Even if we did find a qualified and competent individual to fill a specialized advisory job, their effectiveness was underwhelming. The three primary effectiveness problems we dealt with were inter-contractor antagonism, and poorly written, vetted, and implemented performance work statements on the government side and poorly written, vetted, and implemented standard operating procedures on the contractor side,

It was next to impossible to get contractors employed on different contracts to work together constructively towards accomplishing our mission. Getting the simplest level of cooperation out of two different companies required immense effort on the part of the government employees overseeing contracts. Even when we wrestled them into compliance the resulting cooperation was weak and halfhearted.

On the government side, the October 2018 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) 19-03 Audit Report found that the Defense Department’s two major advisory contracts worth $421 million combined did not have measurable performance work statements against which to assess contractor performance. My experiences also confirmed that performance work statements were frequently unintelligible or did not have any objective criteria with which to measure performance.  Our evaluations were essentially satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with no ability to monitor trends over time or perform quantitative analysis. Since 2010, the U.S, government has spent $1.62 billion on advisory contracts for the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior without meaningful and measurable performance standards.

On the contractor side, companies would regularly write vague and recondite language into their own standard operating documents or quibble about the exact verbiage in their performance work statements. This gave them an easy out when they didn't want to do something the government asked them to do. Contractor X would regularly refuse to perform some requested task because it didn't fall within the confines of his contract’s performance work statement. Company Y’s standard operating procedures would create arbitrary rules preventing an employee on one contract from flying with someone on another contract, or from flying with NATO personnel or Afghans that didn't meet certain arbitrary training thresholds. In one case, a company grounded all its air crews because a senior contractor capriciously decided that the company’s standard operating procedure prevented employees from flying armed until the allegedly ambiguous language was amended.

Strategic Communications Gap

The NATO coalition’s efforts to strengthen legitimacy and build trust in the Western backed government have certainly not been perfect. With that said, the vast majority of Afghans I met were incredibly grateful for the coalition’s efforts, and trusted that NATO servicemembers truly wanted to build a better and more secure Afghanistan. This trust did not carry over nearly as definitively to the contractor mission in the country. In some cases, the Afghans in our unit were downright distrustful of the contractor advisors mentoring them. One Afghan pilot I knew even remarked to me that “We know they are just f****** mercenaries at the end of the day.” While most Afghans we advised understood why NATO employed contractors in certain roles, they were also keenly aware of the difference in incentives between a uniformed advisor and a contractor.


I am not the first person to point to any of these problems. Various U.S. government agencies have identified them all at some point during 17 years of war. Unfortunately, many of the contracting lessons we have learned seem to be lost whenever new leadership takes over. Often it feels as though we have fought 17 one-year long wars. As my recent experiences attest, no one seems committed to long term and genuine contractor reform and accountability in Afghanistan, despite comprehensive evidence of strategic failure and ongoing corruption in the industry.

These experiences have also strengthened my view that recent proposals, such as Erik Prince’s, which seek to expand the role of contractors in Afghanistan are misguided and dangerous. Even though Prince’s plan may reduce the government’s costs in the short term, it will be plagued by the same oversight and accountability flaws, effectiveness deficiencies, and strategic communications weaknesses as the current contracting model the coalition is employing. The view of many of my colleagues and our Afghan partners further reinforces this view.

There are also notable differences between the way contractors are employed in-garrison at home and how the coalition should be using them in Afghanistan. For one, there are far more uniformed military members and Defense Department civilians to oversee contractors stateside. Second, quality control is much easier to enforce when personnel are not in a warzone facing countless other demanding stressors and challenges. Just because one model works relatively well at home does not mean it will work well overseas, and it is not working well in Afghanistan. These concerns will only become more magnified as a result of the recent announcement that 7,000 troops will be withdrawing from Afghanistan in the coming months, since the ratio of contractors to uniformed personnel will only increase unless there is a concomitant reduction in contractor personnel.

The NATO coalition would do well to adequately dedicate the resources required to effectively oversee the number of contractors operating in the country, or scale back the number of contractors it relies on to complete its mission. More contractors are not the answer. The coalition should also enforce more widespread contractor compliance with the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System to track poor performers or come up with some other system to ensure poor performers are held accountable. Other possible areas for reform are increasing the ratio of Contracting Officer’s Representatives to contractors in the country, enhancing their training, more fully incorporating them into the hiring and vetting process, and improving and vetting performance work statements and company standard operating procedures to ensure they are written clearly and with measurable performance standards. Accountability, effectiveness, and strategic communications weaknesses in the current model are just some of the reasons why the coalition should reduce its reliance on contractor advisors if possible. It is abundantly clear that the coalition cannot rely as heavily on the private sector to solve the immense challenges it faces in the country. NATO must reassess and redesign the role of contractors in its strategy for Afghanistan. The status quo is broken, and not delivering the results that these firms advertise.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.


About the Author(s)

Kyle T. Gaines is a captain in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps, stationed at Ft. Shafter, Hawaii. He recently returned from a yearlong intelligence advisory tour in Afghanistan. While deployed, he served as an intelligence advisor, the team executive officer, and a Mi-17 air-crewman. He holds both a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service and a Master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.



Sun, 03/03/2019 - 11:41pm

It appears to me that these are extremely broad conclusions with such a limited amount of military and deployment experience. There are many, many, contracts in Afghanistan (and around the world) with varying compensation, hours, length, vacation, and expertise. The analogy here appears to be akin to a Platoon Leader working with roughly one squad for a year and judging the entire divison or corps by the performance of one or two squad members. As far as compensation, this is typically the most misunderstood part of contracting. Most contractors, unlike their military counterparts, must pay taxes, health, life, long & short term insurance, education and a myriad of other costs. Again, unlike their military and GS counterparts, they usually have no job to return to in the US no matter how good or bad they were on deployment. Finally, rather than 6-7 years experience a contractor is likely to have 20-25 years doing the same type of work in multiple deployements. The fact is in many cases contractors, who are often times treated with contempt (even though many are former soldiers) by active military, have more oversight on a regular basis than military and government civilians combined. 

Bill C.

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:07pm


As we were discussing earlier, I was looking for something that would meet the criteria of Clausewitz's "the spirit of the age."


The character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world. As war is a political act that takes place in and among societies, its specific character will be shaped by those politics and those societies—by what Clausewitz called the “spirit of the age.” 


Given the rise neoliberalism -- and the fact that the rise of privitazation, generally, coincides with and is indeed explained by this such rise of neoliberalism (see the "Guardian" article provided in my comment immediately below) -- I thought that neoliberalism, thus, might meet this "spirit of the age" criteria.      

Herein, and specifically as per this such "spirit of the age" criteria addressed by Clausewitz above, should we not consider that neoliberalism, indeed, might be understood as: 

a.  "A political act that takes place in and among societies (beginning with, shall we say, the Thatcher and Reagan era?), 

b.  "Its specific character (for example the embrace of such things as privitization) ... shaped by those politics (re: neoliberalism) and those societies (of the West generally and of Great Britian and the U.S. specifically)?

(Note:  the items in parenthesis above are obviously mine.)

Not sure what your point is.  The mania for privatization of public services was based on the belief that the commercial market could accomplish tasks cheaper than the government through open competition.  That unsurprisingly proved out for services common to the commercial market -- general facilities maintenance, or some logistics and transportation.  Most of the time, there's no need for troops to fly on a military aircraft from city to city when the government can buy them a commercial airline ticket to accomplish the same result.  It also illustrated the hazards of competition in pursuit of the lowest bidder -- look at the current problems with contracted military housing.  In some cases, the government can also save money on services only needed periodically.  Privatizing unique, full-time government services is a different issue -- any "savings" are based on carefully defined assumptions that often only hold true under certain conditions, and in real life, it often ends up costing more.  But those comparative analyses are rarely done.


As Clausewitz's "the spirit of the age" -- one which explains such things (a) as privitization, etc., and (b) the problems related thereto more generally today -- let me propose, as an alternative to (or, in fact, as an agreement with?) your "thrift" agruement above, the idea and rules of "neoliberalism:"


After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.” ...

The privatisation or marketisation of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.



a.  Such things as "privitization," etc. -- and "fleecing the American taxpayer" associated therewith, 

b.  These such matters to be understood more in terms of "the spirit of the age" of "neoliberalism?"

("War," in fact, more generally of late, to be understood more in such terms?) 

Bill -- a very reasonable question, and it boils down to successive administrations trying to wage war on the cheap.  With a desire to keep costs down, and a belief (in spite of talk about long wars) that these would be short wars, our leaders favored short-term contracting over general mobilization.  Of course, they haven't been short wars, so short-term contracting has become long-term contracting, which is no longer cheap, and tends to suck talent from inside the uniformed ranks.

It's no more complex than that.


The character of war describes the changing way that war as a phenomenon manifests in the real world. As war is a political act that takes place in and among societies, its specific character will be shaped by those politics and those societies—by what Clausewitz called the “spirit of the age.” 



What is the "spirit of the age" that:

a.  Gives rise to privitization in war/the privitization of war and the fact that:

b.  "Contractors in Afghanistan are Fleecing the American Taxpayer?"

I am on my third tour in Afghanistan, the first two as Navy Reserve - supposedly as an advisor. This time I am back as a contractor. Frankly, I see nearly the same problems of allocation of personnel in and out of uniform. In no small part, this stems from the military's tendency to believe that any specialty can assist in any environment. Here in Afghanistan I have worked with people sent her as uniformed linguists - who speak Russian and Korean. I have yet to run into a linguistic specialist of any branch that is sent here who speaks Dari, Pashto, or even Farsi. My guess is that most of them in Korea or AFRICOM.

My one year tour in Afghanistan (the first one) did put me in an assignment where the leadership and language skills the Navy had spent a great deal of time and money putting me through were actually useful. Even the time I spent escorting Afghan officials was productive because I could interact with them (albeit at a rudimentary level), and thereby develop a relationship that was occasionally useful. My team, which I eventually led, included around a dozen contractors - almost all of whom were qualified for and temperamentally suited to the assignment. In three cases over the course of 9 months, we sent contractors home for various reasons. Over that same time, we also sent one military service member home. It should be noted that we had more than three times as many contractors as service members.

My second tour started out with a reasonable match, as a direct security force advisor - the problem being that, as an E-8, the Afghans had only limited interested in listening to me. Advising about my particular areas of expertise was controlled almost entirely by US Airborne and Special Forces personnel - with highly exclusionary communities. With the demise of ISAF during that tour, advising was greatly reduced and I ended up being a reporter on a operations watch floor - using none of my (then) 16 years of expertise, MS in my area of expertise, my (meager) language skill, or my cultural expertise. Why? Because a senior officer decided he needed more bodies - having no interest in my skills, knowledge, or expertise. Again - this was military assigning military.

My Afghanistan contracting tour started quite well - I was assigned a leadership role of a team (contractors) looking at an area that fell nicely into my area of expertise. Because we produced high quality material on time, our team was combined with another to address problems that encompassed even more of my expertise. So, why do I say "started out..."?

I say that because someone at USFOR-A decided five months into my tour that my level of talent needed to be at RSHQ in Kabul. The interesting part of this was that neither my company, my military chain, nor I could find out what I was needed for - although there were some verbal indications of what areas I would probably be working. All of those suited my talents, expertise, and interests. Upon arriving, the military officer assigning personnel, instead put me into an assignment that uses almost none of my talents and expertise.

So, to summarize: 

Q: Are contracting personnel misallocated, even to the point of being detrimental to the mission?

A: Yes - but the same is true of military personnel.

I am not sure what the solution is, but focusing only on the contracting part of the equation is not going to get the problem solved.




Wed, 02/20/2019 - 3:38pm

Thoughtful article and sad to see some of the same problems that arose in the Iraq conflict are still haunting contracting (depressing to see the COR issue has never been solved...). 

It always seems to me all the studies that are written on Contingency Contracting are ultimately recreating the groundbreaking 2007 Gansler Report, "Urgent Reform Required: Army Expeditionary Contracting", a report by the Commission on Army Acquisition and Program Management in Expeditionary Operations. 

In other words, we know the problems and have known the problems for a decade, but despite sporadic attempts to address them they keep rising up again. 

Also worth checking out is Prof. Steven Schooner at George Washington University Law School who is the real guru on government procurement and contracting - and all the problems, as well as the structural impediments to real reform...

-Doug Brooks

I saw some of these same issues when I was a "dirty, nasty contractor" in Afghanistan in 2013-2014.  We had a team leader who, while on active duty, never led anything outside of a SCIF (as indicated by his inability to issue clear guidance, ensure team efforts supported one another, or manage personnel) & apparently had never truly advised despite having been in SF (he was an excellent classroom instructor though).  This individual warned us to avoid declaring our brigade (ANASOF Bde) as reaching "full operational capability" because that could jeopardize our jobs (isn't the point to work ourselves out of a job?).  Another fellow contractor who joined when I did was a former counter-intel officer who was hired to advise the BDE G2 and admitted that he never actually perform S2/ G2 functions when on active duty.  After less than 6 months with our team & the BDE, he was moved to Camp Morehead and then let go after his year was up (good call there).  Also watched as our company and the neighboring company, both working as subs on the same contract (ANASOC), refused to support one another for one reason or another.  Amazing.

If more contractors are going to be added to Afghanistan (or any theater), particularly in the advisory role, then the author's recommendation of more CORs is an absolute must.