Did Defense (mis)management of contractors contribute to the Afghan debacle?

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The rapid collapse of the Afghan army and police, collectively known as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), clearly caught the Biden administration by surprise and has prompted numerous post-mortems. Critics of the president’s decision to hold fast to his Aug. 31 deadline for pullout of all U.S. troops argue that he should have heeded the warnings of his senior intelligence and military officials that such a pullout would be premature. 

Some assert that the administration should have been aware that the underpaid, undersupplied and underfed Afghan forces were unlikely to follow their corrupt leaders in the face of the Taliban onslaught. Still others point to the decision to leave Bagram Air Base near the commencement of the withdrawal, rather than at its end, rendered the Afghan forces powerless without American air support. And some note that once Americans ceased to maintain the Afghan Air Force it was unable to operate on its own.

These contentions raise a much larger question. Why, after two decades, was American air support so crucial? Why did the Afghans continue to rely on Americans to maintain their air and helicopter fleet? Why were they not trained to maintain their aircraft and operate without American support?

On its face, it is arguable that the contractors who maintained those planes had no incentive to train Afghans to stand on their own two feet. Indeed, the same might be said of those contractors who trained the Afghan land units.

Yet, as long as a decade ago, it was clear that the fault lay not with the contractors but with the United States government. I served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Congress mandated in 2008. Initially, several of my fellow commissioners were inclined to believe that any waste or fraud that we were likely to find was because of contractor malfeasance. As we investigated the situation on the ground in both countries over the course of nearly two years, we found that primarily the government was at fault for waste — which we estimated totaled from $31 billion to $60 billion. And that was a decade ago! Poorly designed contracts, automatic renewals and poor oversight were among the causes of the massive waste that ate away at American efforts to stabilize both countries and structure their militaries.

One example of the Commission’s findings that foreshadowed the events of the past few weeks specifically related to the Afghan security forces. The Commission’s final report to Congress noted that “between FY 2006 and FY 2011, Congress appropriated $38.6 billion, an average of $6.4 billion a year, to the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) program to train, equip and provide other support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Such costs far exceed what the government of Afghanistan can sustain.” Where the money went is a question that has gone unanswered.

A decade later — indeed, only in the past few days — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued a report stating that Washington spent $83 billion over the past 20 years to build the ANSF. How much of that massive sum was wasted has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, Washington did not insist on a timetable for contractors to complete their training and maintenance missions to enable the Afghan forces, and especially the air forces that were so critical to keeping the Taliban at bay, to operate on their own. Many, if not most, of the recommendations that the Commission put forth a decade ago, and to which the Department of Defense (DOD) paid lip service, never were implemented.

The DOD certainly will conduct one or more “lessons learned” exercises. Sure to be among these will be an examination of what, in effect, was the grounding of the Afghan Air Force. But those conducting these exercises need not look very far. The answers were there a decade ago in the Commission’s report, and in the many reports that the Special Inspector General issued since then. They go to the heart of DOD’s management of its contractor force. 

Whether DOD will act upon those lessons, however, is an open question. The record is not promising.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Afghan Air Force Afghan National Security Forces government contractors Taliban War in Afghanistan

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