U.S. Command Considering Private Security on Afghan Front Lines

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

The U.S. military command is considering contracting a private firm to manage security on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, even as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says that the Pentagon intends to cut back on the use of private security contractors.

On a Web site listing federal business opportunities, the Army this month published a notice soliciting information from prospective contractors who would develop a security plan for 50 or more forward operating bases and smaller command outposts across Afghanistan.

Although the U.S. military has contracted out security services to protect individuals, military bases and other facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, this contract would award a commercial company unusually broad "theater-wide" authority to protect forward operating bases in a war zone.

"The contractor shall be responsible for providing security services, developing, implementing, adequately staffing, and managing a security program," the notice said, adding that the contractor would have to be available "24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The U.S. military currently has 72 contracts that provide 5,600 civilian guards, mostly local Afghans, at forward bases across Afghanistan, according to Lt. Cmdr. Christine M. Sidenstricker, chief of media operations for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. The intent of the proposed contract is to bring all "disparate and subordinate contracts" under single, theater-wide management at a time when the U.S. forces are expanding, she said.

The Army has not issued a formal proposal for a contract, but the notice says that interested companies should reply by Wednesday and that a formal request for proposals should follow. The "anticipated award date" for a contract is Dec. 1, according to the notice.

The request for information comes as Gates is moving to put soldiers back in charge of security roles that contractors have filled in recent years. Drawing on its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department recently organized a task force to measure the military's dependence on contractor support in training and security, with the goal of determining an appropriate mix.

Lawmakers, too, have raised concerns about the cost of contractors and about outsourcing what have traditionally been government roles.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan congressional panel, noted in a recent report that in previous wars, military police protected bases while other service members pursued the enemy. "Contractors are now literally in the center of the battlefield in unprecedented numbers," the commission said, creating "a need to define specific functions that are not appropriate for performance by contractors in a contingency operation."

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight, said her panel had "revealed major concerns about the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan." She added that a hard look needs to be taken "at where we have gone wrong in the past, to ensure that the military does not repeat history."

Afghan forward operating bases are often considered dangerous posts. An American soldier was critically injured this month when insurgents attacked Forward Operating Base Salerno, near the eastern border town of Khost. Two U.S. troops died July 4 at Combat Outpost Zerok, also near the Pakistan border, in an insurgent assault.

In the worst attack on an outpost, roughly 200 insurgents broke through security walls last year at an outpost in Konar province and killed nine American soldiers. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, recently asked the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate whether security at the post was adequate.

With Afghan army and police officers totaling roughly 160,000, and the number of U.S. service members in Afghanistan set to grow to 68,000 by year's end, the U.S. military is moving to protect the facilities where personnel will be based. But many experts say commanders do not have enough forces.

"We don't want to waste scarce Afghan army and police, so we must be creative," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and military expert at the Brookings Institution.

But O'Hanlon also said he is concerned that if contractors were to take over security at forward operating bases, they would be the first to see hostile fire, and they -- not soldiers -- would have to decide whether to employ weapons against an enemy.

Instead of hiring a private firm, O'Hanlon said, the Americans and Afghans could create a local version of Iraq's Facilities Protection Service, the modestly trained but government-paid guard force that was pulled together to provide protection for government ministries in Baghdad and the oil fields. "We should create a different branch of the Afghan security forces that has minimal training," he said.

At a town hall meeting at Fort Drum, N.Y., on July 16, Gates said that the military had let contracting "grow without the kind of controls that we should" have had. The purpose, he said, was "to try and free up as many soldiers for actual combat duty, rather than having them do things that civilian contractors could do."

Contractors, Gates noted, have done a variety of jobs, including running dining facilities and doing laundry, cleaning chores and security work. "So, we're kind of going back through all of these roles, at this point, to figure out where military ought to be doing these things and where civilian contractors can be," he said.

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