Defense Contracts Foretell Military Buildup in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Defense Department is seeking private contractors to carry out a variety of tasks -- such as clearing land mines, building detention facilities and providing fuel -- to assist U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which are set to grow following President Bush's announcement last week that he will expand military operations there.

This month, the Pentagon issued a proposal seeking civilian contractors to help clear land mines in Afghanistan, including the outer areas of Bagram air base, where new construction is underway. A $25 million contract to build about 14 miles of roads inside the Bagram complex will be awarded later this month. The roads are to "ease traffic flow" and "provide diversions for construction traffic" on the expanding base, according to the published solicitation.

Last week, the Defense Department put out a contract proposal seeking firms that could supply airborne surveillance in Afghanistan with the capability of Constant Hawk, a system now deployed in Iraq. From a single-engine aircraft, Constant Hawk's sensors record and archive data from an area over time in order to capture events such as exploding roadside bombs. Civilian analysts are also being sought to review the recorded incidents and identify perpetrators.

"The military is stretched very thin, and to keep low the deployments numbers, there is a tendency to go to contractors who have played a huge part in Iraq," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), who as a member of the House Appropriations Committee has sponsored legislation limiting contracts in the intelligence field.

Bush announced on Tuesday that over the new few months, he will send nearly 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which he characterized as an increasingly important front in the battle against extremism. Recent Pentagon contracts provide a picture of what the expanded U.S. presence may be called upon to accomplish in that country.

Some contractors are needed because the military lacks particular equipment or personnel. On Monday, U.S. Central Command said it would be advertising for a contractor who could provide 22 medium- and heavy-lift helicopters to transport passengers and cargo in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his Wednesday appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in discussing Afghanistan, "Helicopters is the biggest shortfall we have, and it is very clearly supportive of the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] effort in addition to the attack effort, as well."

Another Army contract, posted this month, calls for a firm to process, clean, repair and provide secure storage for 4,600 incoming vehicles ticketed for the Afghan National Police. The current contractor is storing 1,200 vehicles. But a flood of new ones, expected over the next year, will arrive at a rate of 300 or more a month, including 3,600 light tactical vehicles, 600 Humvees and 100 Humvee ambulances, according to the notice.

Some larger contracts give an indication of how long the U.S. military might intend to remain in Afghanistan. For example, on Aug. 1, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that Prime Projects International, a firm based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, had won a $50 million contract to design and build a prison complex at Bagram to hold 1,000 high- and low-risk detainees. The complex is not expected to be completed before October 2009.

Bagram has become a central location for holding detainees picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Similar to its activities in Iraq, the U.S. military has begun hiring intelligence contractors, many with military experience, to screen those captured to determine whether they should be held as enemy combatants. This month, the military advertised for an "Islamic religious specialist" to support "counterinsurgency and information operations" in the Bagram prison.

That person's job would be to "deliver Islamic religious services for enemy combatants detained" with the facility and also "act as a linguist/interpreter in emergency situations," according to the statement of work attached to the contract solicitation.

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