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The Price of Afghan Security

A RECENT United States congressional investigation confirmed unsettling reports that subcontractors, which are providing the U.S. Army with critical trucking support for remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, have paid massive amounts of cash to tribal warlords in return for local armed guard escorts and safe passage through their territories.

It may never be known where all of the security payoffs made under the Host Nation Trucking (HNT) contract ended up. Terms such as the “the Taliban” and “insurgents” and “warlords” are used by different people to describe the same entities in Afghanistan. Yet one snippet from HNT meeting minutes, included in the House committee’s report, provides an idea of the problem’s scale. There, a participant raised the issue of how to “stop funding the insurgency [with] what is estimated at 1.6 - 2 million dollars per week.”

Why would an insurgency seek to profit from the resupply of its enemy? “They’ve found a method to raise revenue while making life difficult for the international forces,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on Afghanistan’s illicit economies and a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “They’re quite realistic about not being able to disrupt all the traffic, so why not make money from it?”

Experts agree on the root causes of the problem along Afghanistan’s highways: a military coalition unable to hold territory across the country’s expanse, which is about the size of Texas, and unprecedented reliance on contractors because they are affordable, nimble, and a step removed from direct political accountability.

The potential problems of contracting are exacerbated by the use of subcontractors. Investigators found that a skeleton HNT oversight staff housed at a U.S. base in the country had neither the personnel nor the means to oversee what was going on “outside the wire.” The program’s prime contractors were little more than brokers who subcontracted out actual operations with only one effective condition for satisfaction of the contract: delivery.

U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) rules forbid use of private security contractors (PSCs) in situations where enemy contact is likely, and they limit PSCs to weapons that are no more powerful than standard U.S.-issue rifles and pistols. Congressional investigators found the Army “grossly out of compliance” with these regulations. Investigators found that the local guards assigned to subcontracted convoys frequently brandished rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, while the Associated Press has reported that local guards often take pot shots as convoys pass villages, further alienating the Afghan population from the coalition war effort.

The revelations set in motion an effort by the U.S. military to investigate conditions along U.S. supply chains in Afghanistan, modify procurement processes and contract language, and oversee compliance with both contracts and DoD regulations regarding the use of PSCs.

To that end, the Pentagon has established two new units: Task Force 2010 and, more recently, Task Force SPOTLIGHT to handle subcontracting and private- security issues, respectively. U.S. forces expect “tangible results” from the Task Force 2010 effort this month, such as improved contract procedures, regulations, and direct oversight, U.S. Air Force Captain Joel Harper, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan, told Security Management.

Beyond ensuring transparency in contracting and restricting the activity of PSCs, Felbab-Brown says the military can either directly escort supply convoys with overwhelming force or keep paying off local leaders, which she says is to some extent “an inevitable part of war.”

Yet even the best-case outcome of an undesirable situation—security payoffs staying in the hands of regional militias versus getting to the Taliban or al Qaeda—runs contrary to the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that bore fruit in Iraq and is being tested again in Afghanistan. COIN frames counterinsurgency as a competition between insurgents and a country’s government for legitimacy in the eyes of the populace.

Similarly, a secure outcome in which power and the perception of legitimacy are enjoyed by tribes instead of the central government is contrary to the goals of the U.S.-led coalition. Felbab-Brown warns against viewing militia leaders that are pro-government and pro-President Hamid Karzai at any given time as devoted proponents of an Afghanistan led by an enduring central government. They are simply working the system for their own strategic and financial gain, she notes.

Felbab-Brown offers options based on the U.S.-led coalition’s endgame. If the coalition abandons the goal of a strong, sustainable Afghan government and hopes only to contain the Taliban’s control of territory, it could continue doing business with warlords and achieve that end, she says. But she warns that such a compromise is unlikely to result in long-term stability in the country.

She offers a cautionary tale about coopting tribal militias: During its 10-year war in Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union co-opted and armed tribal militias in its own fight against Mujahideen insurgents. After the Soviets left in 1989, those tribes turned against one another amid ongoing civil war to settle scores old and new. Amid the chaos, the Taliban emerged to power by the late 1990s, primarily, Felbab- Brown says, because they were able to provide security.