Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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A Kinder, Gentler Blackwater?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 10:46 AM EDT

Jeff Stein reports this morning that the company formerly known as Blackwater has been awarded a CIA contract worth about $100 million to provide security in "multiple regions." This comes days after the company landed a $120 million State Department contract for work in Afghanistan. Stein's piece includes an interesting quote from an official who defends the government's decision to provide Blackwater 2.0 with more work, given the litany of abuses and scandals in the firm's recent past:

"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," maintained a U.S. official who is familiar with the deal and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.

"They’ve had to if they want to survive. They’ve had to prove to the government that they’re a responsible outfit. Having satisfied every legal requirement, they have the right to compete for contracts. They have people who do good work, at times in some very dangerous places. Nobody should forget that, either."

If Blackwater (which is currently up for sale) only now has to prove it's a responsible, legally compliant company, you have to wonder what type of standard government contracting officers were applying previously, as they handed the firm (and its affiliates) contract after contract despite serious questions about its conduct. The offical Stein quotes is echoing the line Blackwater's new management team has been pushing —that the company has been reformed, chastened by the mistakes of its past. It may even be true. Otherwise it's a shrewd, if predictable, PR campaign.

In February, when he was called before a Senate committee to answer for the misconduct of employees of a Blackwater-created shell company named Paravant, Fred Roitz, a senior VP at Xe (as the company is now known), insisted [PDF] the company had truly been transformed into a model corporate citizen: "These changes in personnel, attitude, focus, policy and practice, ownership, and governance represent a break from the past. The new Xe Services remains committed to our nation’s critical missions. We are equally committed, however, to a culture of compliance that in all circumstances reflects a responsible US government contractor." Following the hearing, I approached Roitz to pose a couple questions about his testimony and Xe's new corporate culture. I'd barely introduced myself when he refused to speak with me, brushing past trailed by an entourage of lawyers and crisis management specialists. It sure seemed like the old Blackwater to me.

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McChrystal's White House Spanking

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 9:16 AM EDT

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to the White House for a presidential spanking over some jaw-dropping remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone, which profiles the general in an issue that hits newsstands on Friday. The article, fittingly titled The Runaway General, features highly critical comments about senior Obama administration officials including National Security Advisor James Jones (a "clown," an unnamed aide remarks), Vice President Joe Biden ("Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?" another anonymous aide quips), and the president himself.

The blogs are ablaze with speculation about whether McChrystal will keep his job over this flap, which is really no small manner. McChrystal has effectively undermined the president's authority—and at the worst time possible too, since things are really not going terribly well in Afghanistan presently. For what it's worth, McChrystal says he's sorry for shooting his mouth off:

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.

Heads are already starting to roll over the debacle. The first to go? McChrystal's civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who arranged access to the general and his inner circle. Expect more fallout in the days to come. 

NATO's Contract Fraud A-Team

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 11:53 AM EDT

According to the Wall Street Journal, military commanders in Afghanistan have arrived at the conclusion that allowing billions of dollars to flow to local and international contractors with the scantest of oversight is kind of a big problem. They "now believe," the Journal reports, that "the massive infusions of cash are helping engender a culture of corruption that has undermined Afghan support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and the NATO forces that back it." You think?

The US-led coalition is in the process of putting together a contract corruption-fighting unit dubbed Task Force 2010. It's a catchy enough name. But I might have gone with something different. "2010" gets you wondering why there's no Task Force 2009, or 2008, or 2007...really, why 9 years have passed without a similar unit being stood up. The Journal reports:

Up until now, much of the limited scrutiny that contractors have endured has focused on private security firms, some of which have allegedly paid off the Taliban to avoid attacks.

Officers directly involved with the new task force stressed that it plans to look beyond security firms and examine the full array of contracts, which range from delivering fuel and food to NATO forces to using coalition money to build health clinics and schools in remote villages.

Of particular concern is the frequent use of multiple sub-contracts on many contracts. U.S. officials already investigating corruption in Afghanistan say they have found evidence of companies, in particular construction firms, using a string of sub-contractors to shift cash to shell companies. The money then disappears, usually into foreign bank accounts.

A number of the primary contractors have ties to top Afghan officials or people with powerful political connections, officials say.

Task Force 2010 will look "at who are not only the subcontractors, but the subcontractors to the subcontractors—literally, where is the money going, and is it all above-board?" said Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. Forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, Tuesday at a Congressional hearing on the war in Afghanistan.

Warlord or "Risk-Taking Entrepreneur"?

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

A Western official knowledgeable about Afghanistan's private security scene pointed me to this letter to the editor from the Afghan ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, that ran in the New York Times earlier this week. Jawad is responding to a recent Dexter Filkins piece about Matiullah Khan, a provincial powerbroker in Oruzgan. Khan, once a highway patrol commander, heads a paramilitary force said to be 2,000 men strong, which protects NATO convoys on a particularly dangerous stretch of road between Tirin Kowt and Kandahar. His men also take part in operations with US Special Forces soldiers. It's very lucrative work. He brings in an estimated $2.5 million per month.

The gist of Filkins' story—which is well worth reading in its entirety—is that while Matiullah's services may be helpful in the short-term, empowering him and other local strongmen (there are many) come at the cost of NATO's long-term objectives. For instance, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out this week, building up a capable national army and police force is made even more difficult by the fact that local security operations, which pay better, are recruiting directly from the ranks of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. There's also the fact that Matiullah may be engaging in criminal activity on the side, conniving "with both drug smugglers and Taliban insurgents"—reports of which military commanders apparently ignore in order to justify relying on his services.

The questions Filkins raises in his story are legitimate and troubling, but his characterization of Matiullah rankled the Afghan ambassador. Jawad writes that the story "left the impression that an effective founder of a private security firm is somehow a 'semiofficial warlord,' undermining government institutions in Oruzgan Province."

The Taliban regularly attack supply caravans. NATO cannot secure the safety of its own transports, and because the Afghan Army is deployed in the battle with the Taliban, adequate police officers cannot protect remote highways. Yet risk-taking entrepreneurs like Matiullah Kahn have filled this security vacuum.

First, I'd say Jawad's impression was precisely the one that Filkins was trying to leave. Second, I actually think Filkins was being somewhat charitable when he referred to Matiullah as a "semi-official warlord." If there's even such thing as an "official" warlord, Matiullah is a member of the club. Also, Matiullah doesn't run a "firm" per se. It's basically a militia, which goes by the name Kandak Amniante Oruzgan (or Highway Police Oruzgan). What Jawad conspicously fails to mention is that Matiullah's operation is considered illegal by the government he represents, which requires security outfits, local and international alike, to be licensed through the Ministry of Interior.

In the past, the ministry has even offered Matiullah a license and a government contract, according to Hanif Atmar, who served as Afghanistan's Interior minister until earlier this month, when he was forced to resign by Afghan president Hamid Karzai. But Matiullah has refused to come under government control—which doesn't bode well for any potential efforts in the future to integrate his militia into the Afghan security forces, let alone disband his private army. (And let's not forget that in November Karzai vowed to phase out all private security operations within two years. Good luck.) "Parallel structures of government create problems for the rule of law," Atmar told the Times.

Creating a stable society and a strong central government are, above all else, the Afghan president's main objectives. So why would Karzai's man in Washington go out of his way to defend a warlord—or entrepreneur, or whatever you want to call him—who is confounding these goals?

Sen. Levin Backs Security Co. Phase Out

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

If Carl Levin has his way, Afghanistan's booming private security industry will soon be a thing of the past. On Tuesday the Michigan Democrat, who chairs the powerful Senate armed services committee, threw his support behind a little-noticed plan announced by Hamid Karzai late last year to phase out the use of security companies within two years. During his inaugural address in November, the Afghan president said he intended for "Afghan security entities" to take over the work currently handled by local and international firms.

Given the Obama administration's go-for-broke counterinsurgency strategy, and the involvement of powerful local interests (including multiple members of the Karzai clan) in the security business, Karzai's timetable is viewed as unrealistic. But Levin, whose panel has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into security firms in Afghanistan, said the American and Afghan governments "need to take concrete steps to achieve that goal."

In prepared remarks, Levin criticized PSCs for undermining counterinsurgency efforts, including by setting back initiatives to train Afghan police and soldiers, a crucial piece of the Obama administration's strategy. Levin's comments, which were submitted into the congressional record but not delivered publicly, were included in his opening statement for an Afghanistan-themed hearing held by the armed services committee—one abruptly cut short on Tuesday (and rescheduled for Wednesday morning) after Gen. David Petraeus briefly fainted while fielding questions.

"Our reliance on private security contractors—who often draw on militia forces—is empowering local powerbrokers and warlords who operate outside the government’s control," Levin said. "As stated in one recent military analysis of Kandahar, 'what used to be called warlord militias are now Private Security Contractors.'"

The widespread hiring of private security contractors undermines the Afghan security forces’ ability to recruit and retain personnel.  Some private security contractors working under Defense Department contracts, actively recruit those with ANA or ANP experience. Our Committee’s investigation into private security contractors in Afghanistan has revealed that they are frequently paid more than Afghan security forces. And a Department official recently testified that one reason for high attrition rates among Afghan National Civil Order Police officers, for example, is that "many of them are recruited by higher paying private security firms."    
 


The threat that security contractors pose to mission success is not insignificant. In May 2010 the U.S. Central Command’s Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate reported that there were more than 26,000 private security contractor personnel operating in Afghanistan. Last week, General McChrystal acknowledged the problems arising from our contracting practices, specifically private security companies, and said that ISAF will be looking at what needs to be done. I hope that review will lay out a path to phase out the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan and to integrate those personnel into the Afghan National Security Forces.

Levin has put his finger on a major dillemma. NATO has become dependent on the services of local security providers, in many cases regional poobahs who command large militias. Matiullah Khan is a prime example. He is a former Afghan highway police commander who now has a large paramilitary force under his command in Oruzgan Province. His fighters both guard convoys (charging as much as $1,200 per truck) and fight alongside US special forces soldiers. Through Khan's ties to NATO, he has amassed wealth and power—despite the fact that he is effectively running an operation considered illegal by the Afghan government, which licenses security outfits. (Khan's operation is unlicensed nor is it a company per se.)

By funding operations like Khan's, as well as those that are said to have ties to the Afghan president's half-brother and Kandahar troublemaker Ahmed Wali Karzai (or AWK as he's locally known), American and international forces are creating a parallel power structure that competes with the central government they are trying to prop up with anti-corruption, rule of law, and other capacity building initiatives. It is hard to see the powerbrokers who NATO has effectively empowered talking kindly to any efforts to shut down the private secuirty private, let alone fully integrate their militias with the Afghan security forces. It would be nice to hear Gen. Petraeus' thoughts on the topic when Tuesday's postponed hearing resumes this morning.

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