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This is clearly the week that every argument against getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May 1 is being thrown up — to borrow a line from Robin Wright — like spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.
The latest, this little nugget highlighted by CNN’s Oren Liebermann this morning, which suggests Washington will be sued by private companies that have contracts with the U.S. government if they cannot continue operating in Afghanistan through 2022 and 2023. In fact, according to Liebermann, some 18 contracts totaling $931 million dollars were signed after the Doha Agreement in 2020 that outlined the U.S. departure this spring.
Much of the contract work involves private security, weapons transfers, training, and information technology. According to the report, there are at least 18,000 private contractors working on behalf of Uncle Sam in Afghanistan right now — including 6,350 Americans (that’s twice the size of the estimated 3,500 US troops there now).
The contracts were signed even as troops were drawing down under President Trump’s demands. Either one hand wasn’t watching the other, or the military ecosystem truly didn’t think that the May 1 deadline would happen. Business as usual in the military industrial complex.
None of this is particularly surprising. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan elevated the private contractor to a level in which the U.S. military was no longer capable of waging operations overseas without them. At the peak of these wars in 2009, there were some 242,000 U.S. contractors, nearly a one-to-one match with active duty 280,000 military personnel, overseas. We have heard much about the private security industry (like Blackwater) that metastasized during this period, but Washington became reliant on huge suppliers like Halliburton and KBR and a galaxy of sub-contractors for everything from building and maintaining forward operating bases, to training foreign forces, waste disposal, supplying food, and IT networking.
Contractors soon found themselves in the driver’s seat and waste, fraud, and abuse were along for the ride. Turns out the private sector could take advantage when the military was no longer capable of doing even the most fundamental things on its own. And believe me, the taxpayers paid. And, according to the SIGAR reports that everyone seems to ignore, it’s still happening. The fact that Afghanistan has one of the worst corruption problems on earth doesn’t help: last year, SIGAR reported that the U.S. lost some $19 billion to fraud and abuse in Afghanistan since 2002, mostly likely through local contractors subbing with American companies.
Now the U.S. government is at risk of litigation if it abides by the agreement with the Taliban and withdraws its forces — and contractors — from the country. According to SIGAR John Spoko, the Afghan government now relies on these contractors for building, training and security. Bringing them all home would hurt Afghanistan security forces and the state even more than our troops leaving would. Let them stay and ink new deals with President Ghani then. Those who don’t should start preparing to leave. As the military should be.