17 October 2010

When will they ever learn?

The opening paragraphs of an article in the 7 October edition of The New York Times (see Afghans Linked to the Taliban Guard U.S. Bases, accessible here) make interesting reading on the eve of our first Parliamentary debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan, and our prospects of achieving an acceptable outcome.  They beg the question of whether our major ally is conducting this war in a manner conducive to success:

WASHINGTON — Afghan private security forces with ties to the Taliban, criminal networks and Iranian intelligence have been hired to guard American military bases in Afghanistan, exposing United States soldiers to surprise attack and confounding the fight against insurgents, according to a Senate investigation.

The Pentagon’s oversight of the Afghan guards is virtually nonexistent, allowing local security deals among American military commanders, Western contracting companies and Afghan warlords who are closely connected to the violent insurgency, according to the report by investigators on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The United States military has almost no independent information on the Afghans guarding the bases, who are employees of Afghan groups hired as subcontractors by Western firms awarded security contracts by the Pentagon. At one large American airbase in western Afghanistan, military personnel did not even know the names of the leaders of the Afghan groups providing base security, the investigators found...

It gets worse – read the full article here.

This is yet further evidence of the problems with using military contractors to do the work of soldiers – of which there is abundant evidence from the Iraq experience. Contractors do not have the same motivations, they are not under military command, they are often operating in a legal limbo –indemnified against local law but somehow not subject to US law. Military units are supposedly in the area of operations to fight and win; contractors are explicitly in the area of operations to make a profit.

The extensive use of contractors is driven by cost considerations – soldiers are expensive. But can a nation that wishes to deal effectively with the sensitivities of counter-insurgency operations, where having the locals on side is of fundamental importance, afford to employ contractors?  There is nothing quite so expensive as losing a war.

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