Senate panel: U.S. money was funneled to Afghan warlords with links to violence

The leading Senate panel on military affairs has found that several private security contractors in Afghanistan funneled money from their Pentagon contracts to warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping and bribery.

The private security contractors at the center of the yearlong Senate Armed Services Committee investigation also used U.S. taxpayers’ money to pay off individuals who supported the Taliban or took action against NATO-coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman.

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Levin said on Thursday that his panel’s report underscores the need to “shut off the spigot” of U.S. money going into the “pockets of warlords.”

One of the companies investigated, ArmorGroup, a subsidiary of the British company G4S, relied on Afghan warlords — some of whom were Taliban supporters — to provide manpower for the company’s guard force at an Afghan air base, the report said.

During the contract period with the U.S. Air Force, one of the warlords who provided security forces for ArmorGroup killed another warlord in a shootout at a bazaar, according to the report. A third warlord working with ArmorGroup was killed in a U.S.-Afghan military raid on a Taliban meeting at his home.

A second company, EOD Technology (EODT), relied on local powerbrokers to supply personnel for its guard force, including one individual said to have raised money for the Taliban. EODT also hired personnel that had previously been fired by ArmorGroup for passing sensitive information to a Taliban-linked warlord, according to Levin.

EODT is registered as a foreign corporation in Tennessee.

The investigation also looked into more than 125 Pentagon security contracts in Afghanistan that were in place from 2007 to 2009. The panel found that contractors did not properly vet their personnel or ensure they received adequate training. The investigation revealed wasted resources and “wide gaps in government” oversight that allowed “dangerous” failures to take place, Levin said.

Levin said the report provides support for the decision by military commanders in Afghanistan to clean up contracting practices that could undermine counterinsurgency operations and endanger U.S. troops.

“You can’t have security that produces insecurity,” Levin said at a press conference Thursday.

Levin said Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been briefed on the committee’s findings. He said Gates and his staff membershave been “totally” cooperative and supportive of the committee’s investigation.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, earlier this month issued guidance on the use of contractors “that made it clear that all corrective actions, including terminating contracts and suspending and disbarring contractors, will be on the table,” Levin said.

Levin did not indicate that he would seek any legislative fixes. The panel’s investigation likely will inform two Pentagon task forces that are looking into the problems.

Levin said that the United States must reduce its reliance on private security contractors in Afghanistan, but acknowledged that their role in the country is necessary and that the Pentagon or State Department will continue to rely on them.

“We obviously need people to provide security,” Levin said.

However, he stressed that security contractors should be coordinated, overseen and directed by authorities. If resorting to warlords or strongmen proves necessary for certain operations, then the decision to use them should be made at the highest command levels in the military and not at the low command levels, Levin said.

Levin said that commanders in Afghanistan, with Petraeus in the lead, are committed to change the “status quo” of private security contracts in Afghanistan.

Republican senators on the Senate Armed Services panel said that the investigation demonstrates the risks of using private security contractors, but also argued that the report takes a “narrow focus” that could give the impression that the use of “private security contractors provided no benefit whatsoever.”

In additional views provided at the end of the report, the Republican senators stress that during the period covered by the investigation, 2007-2009, operations in Afghanistan were secondary to those in Iraq and that the lack of other “feasible options” made it necessary for the U.S. to hire private security contractors.

With the panel’s ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in the lead, committee Republicans said that the report “falls short of providing a more robust discussion of how slim our options were at the time and how our commanders have recognized these dangers and are moving” together with the Afghans to “incrementally” reduce dependence on private security contractors by developing a capable national security force.

No Republican senators were present at Thursday’s unveiling of the investigation.

Levin said on Thursday that while the investigation uncovered failures, most of the contractors working in Afghanistan are “honest” and “hardworking.” That is why he said the United States has to change the way it does business in Afghanistan to ensure that the “honest” and “hardworking” people get to work there in support of the military mission.