Problems Persist With DOD Contractors in Afghanistan, Report Says

By Edwin Mora | June 7, 2011 | 8:07 AM EDT

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shakes hands with an Afghan soldier during a farewell ceremony for Gates in Kabul, Tuesday June 7, 2011. In a last farewell to US and international forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says they are on track to deliver a decisive blow against the Taliban. (AP Photo//Jason Reed, Pool)

( - Despite some improvement in recent years, the Defense Department still faces challenges in managing the tens of thousands of contractors it uses in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Congressional Research Service says.

Those challenges include the large number of local people hired in Afghanistan – and whether U.S. taxpayer dollars end up empowering “bad actors, criminal gangs, or corrupt individuals.”

Other problems arising from poor contract management include delaying or preventing troops from receiving needed support; and wasteful spending. Moreover, the May 13 CRS report notes, “Some analysts believe that poor contract management has played a role in permitting abuses and crimes committed by certain contractors against local nationals, which may have undermined U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

CRS states that as of March 2011, there were 90,339 contractors in Afghanistan, compared with around 99,800 uniformed personnel. Approximately 20,000 of the contractors were U.S. citizens, 46,000 (51 percent) were local nationals, and 24,000 were from other countries.

These contractors work in security, construction, translation, transportation, and other troop-support services.

In September 2010, General David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force/United States Forces in Afghanistan, directed U.S. and NATO forces to hire local Afghans whenever possible.

But, the report notes, such an “Afghan First” policy raises a number of issues:

“The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has generally had little visibility into who the local national contractors and subcontractors are who work for DOD, including not knowing the extent to which money from government contracts is empowering bad actors or groups whose interests run counter to the mission of coalition partners.”

To address the corruption related to defense contracting in Afghanistan, ISAF established a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) in August 2010. CJIATF includes three “specialized units”: one focuses on private security contractors, one focuses on the risk of contract funds going to hostile groups, and the third focuses on the link between drug traffickers, insurgents and corrupt powerbrokers.

CRS says the Defense Department has taken other steps to improve the way it manages contractors. Among other things, it has set up a Joint Contracting Command to provide a more centralized contracting support and management system. And it is trying to improve troop training on how to manage contractors.

“A number of analysts and government officials believe that some of these efforts have improved DOD’s ability to manage and oversee contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report says.

But problems persist: “For example, DOD was recently criticized for not knowing who is receiving money from U.S.-funded contracts in Afghanistan. There have been allegations that money from U.S.-funded contracts has gone to local warlords and the Taliban. Recent criticism also includes DOD’s continued inability to accurately track contracts and contractor personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

CRS isn’t the only group to examine contracting problems in Afghanistan:  In June 2010, a House investigative report found that a portion of the $2 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds spent on DOD private security contracts to guard U.S. military supplies could be making its way to the Taliban as “protection payments for safe passage.” 

And the Government Accountability Office reported in October 2010 that the U.S. government fails to collect reliable information on American taxpayer-funded contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.