Taliban targets U.S. contractors working on projects in Afghanistan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 17, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- The Taliban has begun regularly targeting U.S. government contractors in southern Afghanistan, stepping up use of a tactic that is rattling participating firms and could undermine development projects intended to stem the insurgency, according to U.S. officials.

Within the past month, there have been at least five attacks in Helmand and Kandahar provinces against employees of U.S. Agency for International Development contractors who are running agricultural projects, building roads, maintaining power plants and working with local officials.

The USAID "implementing partners," as they are known, employ mainly Afghans, who are overseen by foreigners. The companies' role is becoming increasingly important as more aid money floods into southern Afghanistan as part of a dual effort to generate goodwill and bolster the Kabul government.

A suicide car bomb that exploded Thursday evening outside a compound used by Western contractors in Kandahar City was the latest and deadliest attack. The 9:30 p.m. blast killed at least four Afghan security guards and wounded 16 other people, including at least two Americans, along with South African and Nepalese employees. The compound houses USAID contractors, including Chemonics International, the Louis Berger Group and the Central Asia Development Group, according to U.S. officials.

Three buildings in the compound, which sits within five miles of the Canadian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team base, were damaged, U.S. officials said. At least one company working in Kandahar, Bethesda-based DAI, evacuated some employees to Kabul after the attack, the officials said.

"The bad guys have figured it out," one U.S. official in Kandahar said. "I've never seen them go after implementing partners this way. We've got to reevaluate now what we're doing."

Thursday's attack came two days after Hosiy Sahibzada, 24, an Afghan who worked for DAI, was gunned down as she walked home from the office in Kandahar City. On Tuesday, an Afghan employee of Arlington-based International Relief & Development, was shot and killed in Helmand province's Garmsir area.

In late March, two men wearing suicide vests and carrying assault rifles scaled the wall around a USAID contractor's office building in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's provincial capital, U.S. officials said. They sprayed gunfire into the office where an American and four Afghans administered an agricultural project. At the time, only an Afghan secretary was in the office. She was shot twice in the stomach but survived, U.S. officials said, and security guards killed the attackers before they could blow themselves up.

The fifth incident also occurred in late March, south of Lashkar Gah. A convoy of Chemonics employees was the target of a bomb-and-gunfire ambush in which three Afghans were killed.

On Dec. 15, a DAI facility was bombed in Gardez, killing five Afghan security guards.

The U.S. official said it would be foolish to think that the attacks were independent of one another. "This can't be coincidental," he said. "This is what they're doing now."

A senior U.S. military official in Kandahar said the military is "looking hard at these incidents" for signs of a pattern and to figure out whether targeting contractors has become a tactic. As more U.S. troops arrive and Afghan forces improve, it was to be expected that insurgents would go after more vulnerable targets, the official said, especially "as we focus on improving governance."

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