Contractors in Afghanistan are Fleecing the American Taxpayer
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 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 This drawdown might, as , 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 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 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.
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 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 .
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 , 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.