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Contractor Challenges in Afghanistan

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan by this summer is expected to increase the number of Department of Defense contractors needed to between 130,000 and 160,000. Following the “Afghan First” approach to contracts that has been adopted by the U.S. government to promote the hiring of Afghan companies and personnel, there will be an effort to select local nationals to fill a high percentage of these new contractor positions.

Local nationals already constituted about 75 percent of the roughly 104,000 contractors in place as of September 2009. But the policy has proven problematic for several reasons, according to Kenneth P. Moorefield, assistant Defense Department inspector general for Southwest Asia, who testified on the issue before the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are few Afghan companies with the requisite experience to effectively undertake and complete projects at the required standards,” he said. “In some instances, Afghan companies hired proved unable to meet contractual timing and quality requirements. While many Afghans gladly accept the offer of employment, most are not qualified to contribute more than manual labor.”

Doug Brooks, president and founder of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), concurs, telling Security Management, “In Afghanistan, while [local contractors] may be able to drive a truck, they may be completely illiterate.”

Moorefield told commissioners that contractors working to train or support the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police must contend with an illiteracy rate in excess of 70 percent.

Moorefield also said that some facilities that had been constructed for the Afghan Army did not take cultural differences into account. He cited, as an example, one facility that was constructed without floor-level wash basins in the restrooms, which resulted in sinks being torn off the wall when Afghan soldiers sat on them to wash their feet, which is a cultural necessity in that region.

Brooks says hiring local nationals can also be a significant challenge because the Afghan private security law stipulates that the ethnicities and tribes of the contractors should be mixed to avoid creating an ethnic militia.

“In Iraq, it’s difficult enough,” he says. “You have to mix up your Sunni and Shiite and Kurds, and that can be problematic. In Afghanistan, it’s 100 times worse.”

He cites other issues such as the challenges of obtaining receipts from Afghans and downloading computer records, which may not be possible in many circumstances but is often required by U.S. law.

Some attempts have been made to train local Afghan nationals to American or British standards and this presents another failure point, according to Mike Blyth, director of risk consulting at RSM Consulting. “The training needs to be sensitive to what they can physically achieve,” Blyth says. “And you can’t just go in for two months, do a training course, and assume that they are going to keep on doing what you’ve told them to do. It needs to be a longer mentoring process.”