Wired’s Danger Room November 21, 2012
Inside a compound in Kabul called Camp Integrity, the Pentagon stations a small group of officers to oversee the U.S. military’s various operations to curb the spread of Afghanistan’s cash crops of heroin and marijuana, which help line the Taliban’s pockets. Only Camp Integrity isn’t a U.S. military base at all. It’s the 10-acre Afghanistan headquarters of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater.
Those officers work for an obscure Pentagon agency called the Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office, or CNTPO. Quietly, it’s grown into one of the biggest dispensers of cash for private security contractors in the entire U.S. government: One pile of contracts last year from CNTPO was worth more than $3 billion. And it sees a future for itself in Afghanistan over the long haul.
Earlier this month, a U.S. government solicitation sought to hire a security firm to help CNTPO “maintain a basic, operational support cell” in Kabul. Army Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, explains that “cell” doesn’t kick in the doors of any Afghan narco-kingpins. It handles the more mundane tasks of overseeing the contracts of the Pentagon’s counter-narcotics programs, from “training and linguists, and [providing] supplies, such as vehicles and equipment.” The solicitation, however, indicates those services aren’t going anywhere: When all the options are exercised, the contract extends through September 29, 2015, over a year past the date when Afghan soldiers and cops are supposed to take over the war. And the “government preferred location” to base CNTPO? Camp Integrity.
The envisioned Pentagon counter-narco-terrorism staff is pretty small: only two to four personnel. But protecting them at Camp Integrity is serious business. The November 6 solicitation calls for a security firm that can “provide a secure armory and weapons maintenance service, including the ability to check-in and check-out weapons and ammunition,” particularly 9 mm pistols and M4 rifles; and to provide “secure armored” transportation to the CNTPO team — primarily “in and around Kabul, but could include some remote locations.”
CNTPO has a longstanding relationship with Blackwater, the infamous security firm that is now known as Academi. In 2009, it gave Blackwater a contract to train Afghan police, and company employees used that contract to requisition guns from the U.S. military for their private use. Although that contract was ultimately taken out of CNTPO’s hands, the office’s relationship with Academi/Blackwater endures. Last year, Academi told Danger Room it has a contract with CNTPO, worth an undisclosed amount, to provide “all-source intelligence analyst support and material procurement” for Afghanistan. An Academi spokeswoman, Kelley Gannon, declined to comment on Academi’s relationship with CNTPO, or whether it’ll bid on the new contract
“I just combine the global and free information on the Internet with my local received information from the ether,” Huub e-mails Danger Room. “[My] main goal to listen to this communication is to listen to ‘the truth,’ without any military or political propaganda.”
The U.S. military has dispatched one of its secret propaganda planes to the skies around Libya. And that “Commando Solo” aircraft is telling Libyan ships to remain in port – or risk NATO retaliation.
We know this, not because some Pentagon official said so, but because one Dutch radio geek is monitoring the airwaves for information about Operation Odyssey Dawn — and tweeting the surprisingly-detailed results. On Sunday alone, “Huub” has identified the tail numbers, call signs, and movements of dozens of NATO aircraft: Italian fighter jets, American tankers, British aerial spies, U.S. bombers, and the Commando Solo psyops plane (pictured).
“If you attempt to leave port, you will be attacked and destroyed immediately,” the aircraft broadcasted late Sunday night. Please read the entire article and listen here
You can expect to see at least two people inside the secret bunkers in Virginia where the CIA pilots its lethal drones over Pakistan. One controls the distant drone, his hand on a joystick, ready to fire off a missile at a target below.
Another is a CIA lawyer, watching to ensure that the operator is within his rights to attack his target. Call it a “punctilious” method to avoid civilian casualties and legal hot water, as one of those lawyers recently did — or call it the bureaucratization of a shadow war.
Tara Mckelvey gets a very rare peek inside the processes that go into the drone strikes, an undeclared air war that peaked last year at 118 missile firings, up from 33 in 2008. Her conclusion, published today in Newsweek, is that the operations ordering them are “multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner.”
But even the CIA’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, is blunt about his involvement in what he calls “murder.”
Over the past year, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior has fired hundreds of leading police officials, according to a forthcoming NATO report on the Afghan security services. And that purge is just the beginning, even as police ranks are scheduled to expand.
As of November, the newly-appointed Afghan interior minister, Bismullah Mohammadi, has “changed 32 top ministerial leaders and many top provincial leaders” in his first four months on the job, according to a report on institutional development at the ministries of Interior and Defense prepared for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. That’s on top of the elimination of “hundreds” of top police “leadership positions leadership positions deemed to be wasteful or redundant” over the past year. And “thousands of patronage positions” are expected to be jettisoned in the coming months.
Even though NATO is rushing to get more police in uniform so the cops can help Afghan soldiers take over security responsibilities from the U.S. by 2014, NATO is cheering the purge on. The Afghan police have had persistent problems with competence, corruption and even basic literacy. The report, acquired by Danger Room and scheduled for public release on Thursday, judges that Mohammadi’s firings, along with other recent “major reforms” to the ministry, will “help reduce bureaucracy, negative incentives and corruption.”
NATO is also hopeful about Mohammadi’s new squad. The new deputy for strategy and policy is getting rid of “thousands of patronage positions” from the ministry. The new logistics chief is “honestly assessing shortfalls” in equipping the cops, after accountability was “negligible” last summer. The new commander of the elite police force, the Afghan National Civil Order Police, is stressing “ethics, training [and] professionalism.”
If that sounds like faint praise, it speaks to how far the Afghan police still have to go before they can keep the peace without U.S. mentorship. Police units are often short on necessities like fuel and ammunition, and at times they use raids on suspected Taliban as opportunities to shake down civilians. Others make money on the side by helping the drug trade. Not many of them can read beyond a kindergarten level.
NATO’s training effort for the cops has its own problems. In November, its leader, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell said he was still short hundreds of police trainers. The U.S. Army has made up for some of that by re-awarding a billion-dollar training contract to DynCorp, the same contractor that’s mentored the cops for nearly a decade’s worth of under-performance. One of Gen. David Petraeus’ first Afghanistan initiatives was to deputize “local police units” – don’t call them “militias” — as an auxiliary force.
NATO sees reasons for optimism in the months ahead. A new law provides retirement benefits for cops, which helps get rid of “Soviet-era” police brass who’ve stuck around for a paycheck, something the report says “increased corruption in the lower ranks” by example. Over the next year, the interior ministry will add four more police training facilities around Afghanistan, allowing 18,000 more cops to be trained at any given time.
And the defense ministry, which is considered a more competent institution, is becoming more closely involved in the police’s development, “transferring small arms” to its sister ministry, “formalizing joint training, and improving information sharing.” It’s part of what NATO wants to see in 2012: less NATO teaching Afghans how to soldier and police, and more Afghans teaching each other those skills.
Whether that can happen remains to be seen. The report goes into a lot of detail about institutional improvements in both the defense and interior ministries. But it notes that even as the ministries are scheduled to add another 39,000 soldiers and cops this year — despite the Interior Ministry’s purge — poor literacy rates remain a problem: 50,000 security personnel have received literacy training, with 42,000 currently enrolled. And it doesn’t mention any pay increases for security forces, even though the Taliban’s estimated pay is about even or even better than what the Afghan government dishes out — another factor contributing to poor performance and corruption.
If there’s change coming to the Afghan police, the U.S. needs to rush to put it in place: by 2014, U.S. troops are supposed to relinquish a leading role in securing Afghanistan to the national police and army. But don’t think that’s going to mean the end of U.S. involvement in the Afghan security forces. The NATO training command estimates that it’ll cost $6 billion a year, indefinitely, to sustain the security infrastructure the U.S. is building — and given the dire state of Afghanistan’s economy, that cash is likely to come in large part from the U.S. taxpayer. The U.S. can buy good cops or it can buy bad cops, but chances are it’s going to be paying no matter what. Please see the original here
Sometime around the spring of 2011, lawmakers will begin to ramp up a debate on whether or not the United States should begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan according to the “conditions-based” timetable established by the announced July 2011 “deadline” — a term I am using with as much flexibility as I can muster. But over in Afghanistan, the debate may be largely settled.
Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman is at Bagram Air Force Base today for the first time since 2008, and he sees the base expanding and hardening into something very permanent. The base is packed with planes of all stripes and the base’s main road has become a “two-lane parking lot of Humvees, flamboyant cargo big-rigs from Pakistan known as jingle trucks, yellow DHL shipping vans, contractor vehicles and mud-caked flatbeds.” There are hangars going up, cranes everywhere, and cement is “being manufactured right inside Bagram’s walls” by a Turkish contractor. Ackerman captures the change thusly:
I haven’t been able to learn yet how much it all cost, but Bagram is starting to feel like a dynamic exurb before the housing bubble burst. There was actually a traffic jam this afternoon on the southern side of the base, owing to construction-imposed bottlenecks, something I didn’t think possible in late summer 2008.
And here’s your population-centered counterinsurgency update:
Troops here told me of shepherd boys scowling their way around Bagram’s outskirts, slingshotting off the occasional rock in hopes of braining an American. Again, something else I wouldn’t have believed two years ago.
Ackerman’s bottom line: “Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul.”
Are the Taliban shelling out more money for their fighters than the U.S. and the international community are for Afghan security forces? The American military says no, and e-mails the chart below to make its case. But it’s not the most persuasive document. And it’s undermined by one of the reports in WikiLeaks’ trove of war logs.
In February 2008, a U.S. military report from southern Afghanistan documented how a Taliban leader offered a brigade commander in the Afghan National Army $100,000 to quit his job. (He also had his family’s safety threatened as an or-else.) That would be a lucrative bribe for most people. But as the American chart shows, a colonel in the Afghan national security forces would have to put in 24 years of service before pulling down $805 per month.
That should give a sense of what the incentive structure is for Afghans caught in their country’s war — including those willing to answer the call of the Karzai government to join the army and police forces. In December, now-retired General Stanley McChrystal testified to Congress that the pay scale of the Afghan security forces was “almost at parity” with the estimated $300 that the Taliban pays its foot soldiers per month. But look at the chart, issued before McChrystal testified. An Afghan policeman or soldier with under three years in uniform pulls in $165 per month. See the Chart and read the entire story here
More good news from Afghanistan: the U.S. military has no idea where the billions it’s spending on warzone contractors is actually ending up. And nine years into the war, the Pentagon has barely started the long, laborious process of figuring it out.
Rear Admiral Kathleen Dussault just arrived in Kabul about a week and a half ago as the commander of Task Force 2010, a new unit established to ensure that the military’s dependence on contractors for everything from laundry to armed security doesn’t end up undermining Afghanistan’s stability in the process. That’s no hypothetical concern: a congressional report last week found that Afghan, U.S. and Mideastern trucking companies who have a piece of a $2.16 billion logistics contract with the military pay about $4 million every week in protection money to warlords and Taliban insurgents.
Enter Dussault, one of the military’s few flag officers to specialize in contracting and the former commander of the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan. Her priority for Task Force 2010’s joint military/civilian team of auditors and investigators, Dussault tells Danger Room in a phone interview from Afghanistan, “is to put a laser-like focus on the flow of money, and to understand exactly how money is flowing from the contracting authorities to the prime contractor and the subcontractors they work with.” It’s imperative, she adds, to get contractors to “understand they have to be more specific about who their network is and what their subcontractors are.”
The basic problem is that the military structures its Afghanistan contracts in such a way that doesn’t actually know where its money goes after it inks a deal with a so-called “prime vendor.” “Service contracting has traditionally been an omnibus result,” Dussault says. “You deliver that service. We don’t tell you how to deliver that service.”
The plan was to overwhelm the Taliban stronghhold with coalition forces — and then instantly install a new civilian infrastructure in the town of Marjah. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The reality has been different. A new governor has been installed. Construction projects have begun. “By day there is government,” one tribal leader tells McClatchy’s Don Nissenbaum. “By night it’s the Taliban.”
Marines are running into more firefights on their patrols. Taliban insurgents threaten and kill residents who cooperate with the Americans, and it will be months before a permanent police force is ready to take control of the streets from the temporary force that’s brought some stability to Marjah.
The U.S.-backed Marjah governor, Marine officials said, has five top ministers. Eight of 81 certified teachers are on the job, and 350 of an estimated 10,000 students are going to school.
“How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?” McChrystal asks. “I’m telling you… We don’t have as many days as we’d like.” Full Story here
Coincidences sure are funny things. Booz Allen Hamilton — the defense contractor that’s become synonymous with the idea that the U.S. is getting its ass kicked in an ongoing cyberwar — has racked up more than $400 million worth of deals in the past six weeks to help the Defense Department fight that digital conflict. Strange how that worked out, huh?
Everyone in the Pentagon from Defense Secretary Bob Gates on down says that the military needs to cut its reliance on outside contractors. But few firms are as well-connected as Booz Allen, the one-time management consultancy that today pulls in more than $2.7 billion in government work. And few firms sound the alarm as loudly about a crisis that they’re in the business of fixing. Back in February, for instance, former National Security Agency director and Booz Allen Hamilton executive vice president Mike McConnell declared that “the United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing.” The White House’s information security czar is one of many experts who calls such rhetoric overheated, at best. That hasn’t stopped Booz Allen from pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington to wage those battles.
Booz Allen’s latest awards were announced last Thursday — nine contracts with the Air Force, totaling over $150 million. One deal gives the firm $24 million to “provide combat-ready forces to conduct secure cyber operations in and through the electromagnetic spectrum.” A $19.8 million contract asks Booz Allen to “define information assurance scientific and technical analysis to be applied to future military satellite communication systems development.” Earlier in the month, the company got $14 million to “provide threat monitoring, detection, characterization, and actionable information for the computer network operations in order to help advance Department of Defense Global Information Grid initiative and nationally oriented cyber security priorities.” Read the More of the Story here
Meet the New Frontline Bloggers: Security Contractors
The frontline soldier blogs have largely come and gone — victims of the military’s confusing, often contradictory, approach to social media. But you can still get unfiltered reports, straight from Afghanistan’s warzones. Private security contractors are now writing the new must-read online diaries from the battlefield. And they’re as raw and brutally honest as anything written by a blogger in uniform.
While support for the troops has been near-universal in our current words, contractors have been demonized as lawless, bloodthirsty guns-for-hire. (It’s a trap I’ve been accused, not without reason, of falling into myself.) These blogs show how shallow that stereotype can be.
“Today was a bad one – so many things happening all at once and I’m feeling the pressure. I feel a bit like a spinning top and am experiencing that classic loneliness of command in that I have no-one I can vent to or confide in. I have to stay cool and in control, keep a smile on my face and boost the rest of the lads when they are feeling the pressure. It’s bloody hard to do some days,” writes the pseudonymous “Centurion” on his blog, Kandahar Diary.
A BBIED (suicide bomber) walked into the middle of one of my convoys today, stuck in traffic on Route 1, and detonated. One guard KIA, 4 WIA (seriously). Not long after, a truck on another convoy tripped an IED – damaged vehicle, nil injuries – and my guard force travelling [sic] from here to Ghazni were contacted by fairly heavy small arms fire – thankfully, no injuries….
As this was all happening I was scratching my head on a budget reconciliation. The whole exercise seemed kind of pointless to me given what was happening on the ground, and I found myself contemplating the budget line item simply titled ‘Coffins’.
…I’m thinking a lot about home and L and the kids. I miss them terribly and worry how they are coping without me.
The best known of these contractor-bloggers is Tim Lynch (pictured). He owns the small security consultancy Free Range International, currently operating in Afghanistan. As an independent operator, he’s able to publicly critique the war effort in ways that most bloggers in uniform can’t. “Our fundamental problem in Afghanistan is that we are fighting on behalf of a central government which is not considered legitimate by a vast majority of the population,” Lynch wrote in a recent post.
And to make matters worse, he added, the majority of the American-led International Security Assistance Force are holed up in concrete-reinforced Forward Operating Bases, where picayune rules about dress code, chow hall passes, and speed limits seem to occupy more minds than the fighting outside.
Napoleon said that in war “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This is the consequence of fronting a government which abuses the population and international guests alike. If the ISAF soldiers were methodically clearing areas of Taliban and then assisting in the establishment of law and order, governance and services which serve the people, and that the people appreciate, we would be achieving moral ascendancy. But that is impossible because the vast majority of troops are based on FOB’s and never leave them, and there is no legitimate government with which to entrust areas we have cleared. So now that we are unable to do what is important, the unimportant has become important and the mark of military virtue is the enforcement of petty policies like the mandatory wearing of eye protection at all times while outdoors.
The blogging contractors represent only a small minority of the tens of thousands of hands-for-hire employed by western militaries in Afghanistan. Most of the security firms have strict prohibitions against discussing their business in public. But the ones that do talk can be just as harsh as Lynch. Take “Paladin Six,” who writes at Knights of Afghanistan.
“Basically, everyone here, from the lowliest shopkeeper to the highest government official is in a mad scramble to grab every Afghani, rupee, ruble and dollar that they can get their hands on before ISAF finally bails out and this place returns to the Dark Ages from whence it came,” he writes. “Yeah, I’m looking at you [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai. And your scumbag brother too.”
These writers don’t just bitch about the military and their partners in Kabul. Lynch, in particular, is an equal-opportunity basher of the boneheaded. “There is a group of rogue contractors working the border from Spin Boldak to Kandahar who are apparently shooting small arms indiscriminately. They are an all Afghan crew, off duty ANP [Afghan National Police] soldiers are working with them, and they are on an ISAF contract. It is up to ISAF to put a stop to this and to do so immediately. But they can’t because nobody seems to know who these clowns work for,” he writes in one post.
In another, he takes aim at the local militants.
Yesterday morning started with an event so senseless and evil that it is hard to describe. An American army patrol was moving through downtown Jalalabad when the villains detonated a bicycle mounted IED. This IED had no chance of even denting the paint job on an MRAP [armored vehicle], but it did throw out a bunch of shrapnel, which killed one of the best diesel engine mechanics in town and wounded another 15 civilians – mostly children.
I drove up behind the convoy a few minutes after the attack. They had stopped, dismounted and were treating the injured… Once I saw where the bomb had gone off I was stunned – the traffic circle is full of children at that time of the day.
“The good people of Jalalabad were pissed off about the bike bomb, but not enough to stage a protest and shout “death to the Taliban,’” Lynch continued in another post. “That is the critical dynamic with which to judge how the people feel about us and the assorted groupings of bad guys who cause them much more grief and hardship, in their reaction to loss of life through stupidity. When people react with spontaneous outrage to Taliban killings, then we will know the tipping point is well behind us.”
There was a time when U.S. troops had the market all-but-cornered the market on these first-person anecdotes and war-hardened analyses. But like so much else, that effort has now been outsourced to contractors. Original Story Here
When it comes to diplomatic security, contractors are a hard habit for the State Department to break. According to a new audit by the department’s Office of the Inspector General, or IG, the department has paid one company — Triple Canopy — a whopping $438 million to guard the embassy in Baghdad since mid-2005.
The report does not contain any damning allegations, like the Animal House-style antics of contracted guard force at the Kabul embassy. But it does give insight into the size of the force that is required to provide security for the Vatican-sized compound on the Tigris. What’s more, it suggests that the embassy has poorly planned for the anticipated U.S. drawdown in Iraq, meaning the government will pay a “projected unnecessary cost” of around $20 million to maintain the contract guard force in Baghdad.
All told, the company currently has around 1,800 employees dedicated to embassy security in Baghdad. Around 1,600 of them are from either Uganda or Peru. And that presents something of a problem: The report found that the contracting officer’s representative — a government employee who is supposed to exercise oversight — “does not enforce contractually required standards for guards’ English language profi ciency.”
And that, potentially, could be a problem if English-language supervisors can’t communicate with guards, especially during an emergency.
Hiring “third country nationals,” or TCNs, as guards is not an uncommon practice in Iraq: Ugandans are perhaps best known for guarding the entrances to military dining facilities in Iraq. Companies like Triple Canopy hire them because they are relatively cheap, compared to U.S. or European expatriates. But the TCNs, apparently, don’t complain as much about working conditions either.
The IG, for instance, faulted Triple Canopy for not providing adequate housing, saying that Triple Canopy “houses guards in unsafe conditions.” Guards, the report says, “live in crowded barracks and shipping containers that exceed occupancy limits by more than 400 percent.”
Generally speaking, the IG said Triple Canopy “performs well” in areas where the State Department properly performs oversight. More than anything, it suggests that State’s oversight, not necessarily the contractor’s performance, is the bigger issue. Triple Canopy, as well, seems to have learned from the repeated public relations disasters of competitors like Xe (a.k.a. Blackwater): It maintains a more low-key, corporate image, complete with a spiffy, Lockheed Martin-style logo, seen in the screenshot here.