The US can replace its out-of-control private security guards in Afghanistan, but it can’t afford to ban military contractors
The release of the extensive investigation by the Project on Government Oversight on Tuesday depicting a "Lord of the Flies" environment among mercenaries in Afghanistan, should only sour the American public further on a war that the majority rightfully no longer believe is worth fighting.
According to interviews and emails with more than a dozen guards from ArmorGroup North America – which holds a five-year $189m contract to protect the US embassy in Kabul – approximately 30 supervisors and guards working for the company "are engaging in near-weekly deviant hazing and humiliation of subordinates" that has led to "complete distrust of leadership and a breakdown of the chain of command, compromising security".
In one email, a current ArmorGroup guard describes scenes where his colleagues are "peeing on people, eating potato chips out of [buttock] cracks, vodka shots out of [buttock] cracks (there is video of that one), broken doors after drnken [sic] brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity".
In another incident, an Afghan food-service worker at Camp Sullivan, a base a few miles from the embassy where the mercenaries are quartered, claims that a "supervisor and four others entered a dining facility on 1 August 2009, wearing only short underwear and brandishing bottles of alcohol. Upon leaving the facility, the guard force supervisor allegedly grabbed the Afghan national by the face and began abusing him with foul language.
Witnesses allege that the highest echelons of ArmorGroup’s management in Afghanistan have not only condoned these twisted activities, but engage in them, and that "those who declined to participate [are] often ridiculed, humiliated, demoted or even fired".
While these revelations are shocking, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last two years, the US state department has repeatedly warned ArmorGroup about its numerous contract violations and chronic lack of manpower in Afghanistan, which according to one contracting official has put the embassy’s security "in jeopardy".
The Project on Government Oversight’s 10-page letter to secretary of state Hillary Clinton also notes, among a host of other problems, that most of the 300 Indian and Nepali Gurkhas working for ArmorGroup in Kabul cannot speak adequate English, which forces "non-English-speakers and English-speakers … to use pantomime in order to convey orders or instructions." In addition, a lawsuit filed by two former guard supervisors says the firm "knowingly and repeatedly provided substandard equipment and services" in order to maximise profits.
At a Senate hearing on waste, fraud and abuse by ArmorGroup in June, senator Claire McCaskill asked in exasperation: "Is this the best we can do?" It doesn’t take a particularly wild imagination to dream up ways that the $8,000-a-month salary that American, Canadian and British ArmorGroup guards are paid could be better spent.
Nevertheless, ArmorGroup’s contract was renewed yet again the following month, revealing just how utterly dependent the US is on mercenary forces to keep its wars afloat.
As of 30 June, there were nearly 74,000 military contractors – including 5,165 armed private security guards – in Afghanistan, far outnumbering the roughly 58,000 US troops in the country. While it’d be next to impossible for President Barack Obama to rid the occupation of contractors altogether, it would not be difficult for him to replace the entire mercenary force (which is about the equivalent of one brigade) with US soldiers.
Given the never-ending scandals involving armed contractors, why then has the administration not taken this seemingly logical step? The answer points to one of the most alluring attractions of privatised war: It gives those in power an easy way to circumvent traditional democratic processes. They can escalate war under the radar with far less interference from the public.
Hiring additional contractors in Afghanistan – the vast majority of whom are local nationals or citizens from other poor countries – simply doesn’t generate the headlines that sending more US troops does. Moreover, contractor deaths are not counted in any official tally of casualties, which ultimately serves to slow the growth of public opposition to the war.
Despite these unspoken benefits of privatisation, out-of-control contractors could still become more hassle than they are worth to the administration. Perhaps this latest scandal will open America’s eyes to the fact that mercenaries – much like the war itself – are detrimental to the security and image of the US abroad.