Nearly every big contractor in Afghanistan hires a security firm to protect its employees, offices, guesthouses, and equipment. There are also the foreign security firms that focus on Afghan police and military training. Security makes up another huge sector of foreign business in Afghanistan. The American embassy in Kabul spends up to 25 percent of its budget on security.67
Recently, there was almost a change of guard at U.S. embassy security booths. The existing contractor, British firm Global Risk Strategy, was outbid by the American firm MVM Inc. MVM was founded in 1979 by three former members of the U.S. Secret Service, and is now run by a former Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor. For a little less than $25 million, MVM was hired to protect the U.S. embassy and its staff in Kabul, on the condition that all of its recruits speak English and be handy with a gun. MVM initially recruited African guards to do the job, but shortly after their arrival in Kabul, they disappeared, apparently because they felt the job had been misrepresented to them. Our source says they were allowed out of their contracts, but asked to pay for their hire and transport to the embassy. (It’s not clear whether they paid or not.) Then MVM hired Peruvians to replace the Africans, but they arrived on the scene minus the two requirements: English and marksmanship.
It appears now that Global Risk and its elite Gurkha Nepalese guards kept their jobs.68 Robert Rubin, vice president of MVM, said the company was training to provide security at the embassy but the State Department retracted its contract for its own reasons before any work began. He denied allegations that the Africans were unhappy or the Peruvians were unqualified for the job.
According to the Afghan Investment Support Agency that keeps track of private companies working in Afghanistan, there are 25 foreign security companies, nine of which are joint ventures operating in the country.69 They are mainly American, British, Australian, and South African. The market for security in Afghanistan is brisk. Contractors cannot afford delays and attrition from sabotage and ambushes. They hire private armies to protect their investments and will pay top dollar if the guards are well-trained and have good reputations. The Western employees for these firms (such as Dyncorp, Blackwater, Global Risk Strategy, and others) can earn up to a $1,000 a day.70 The armored cruisers they drive are worth about $120,000 each. Nearly all these guards are armed.
FEAR IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS
Reconstruction contractors have simple means of evaluating a security firm: the more people killed on their watch, the less they are worth. But security firms have a trick up their sleeves: They consult with the State Department and Pentagon to establish how dangerous a country officially is. In turn, aid workers and contractors receive regular updates on security threats by region. Of course, the security companies are invested in creating the impression that a place is a death-trap. These companies, in conjunction with the military, decide how dangerous the country will be rated. Aid workers and other foreign employees have access to security alerts. After insurgent attacks, dire warnings circulate. Security companies in Kabul call this a “white city”—the color of the ashen faces of the foreigners locked up in their houses.
With so much power, few of these security firms have legal licenses to operate in Afghanistan. The firms working with the United Nations have some legal status, but the rest are in the country without any type of regulation and control.71 Some are self-styled vigilantes and mercenaries with James Bond or Rambo complexes. The Ministry of Interior is planning to register private security companies—how many employees they have, how many weapons they carry, and where are they working inside the country. But at this point, little of the information is centralized.
The need for regulation was exposed when Jack Idema, a former American Green Beret, was able to open his own private prison where he could torture and interrogate any Afghan he believed was involved with the Taliban. It was the Wild West. There was no oversight or regulation by either the American military or Afghan government. When the story came to light, Idema and two other American men were sentenced to 10 years in Kabul’s notorious Pul Charkhi prison for hostage-taking and torture.72
BEDFELLOWS WITH WARLORDS
When The Louis Berger Group received the USAID contract in 2002, the company needed security. The job it was performing was one of the riskiest as it camped in the middle of hotspots and made its workers susceptible to insurgent fire. Berger hired USPI—a smaller and lesser known firm—for $36 million over four and a half years. It was the most cost-effective option, Chace said.
USPI is without doubt the most visible security company in the cities and on the roads of Afghanistan. Its guards hide in blue-colored boxes where they eat, sleep, and listen to their radios day and night in front of the homes and offices they are guarding. Each box is emblazoned with the letters USPI.
U.S. Protection and Investigations is a tiny mom-and-pop firm from Texas founded by Barbara Spier, a former safety inspector for a restaurant chain and her husband Del, a private investigator specializing in insurance fraud and workman’s compensation cases. They founded USPI in 1987 and the firm was quickly contracted by Bechtel to provide security on its projects in Algeria. Today, USPI has contracts with the United Nations, private contractors and foreign government agencies in Afghanistan, and has worked in Cambodia, Columbia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Viet Nam.
USPI has had a spotty reputation in Afghanistan almost from the beginning. In the first place, it seemed to have appeared out of nowhere to compete with established security firms such as Blackwater and DynCorp. Its selling point was price; it could underbid any of its competitors for a contract, largely because it spent so little on hiring qualified guards. The company was criticized last year when a British engineer it was guarding was captured and nearly decapitated by rebels claiming to be Taliban.73 In another case, an American USPI supervisor shot and killed his Afghan interpreter after an argument.74 Instead of turning the supervisor over to Afghan officials for an investigation, USPI helicoptered him out of the province to Kabul, and flew him back to the United States.75 While it is unclear whether security contractors are subject to local or U.S. military law, the USPI supervisor has so far been subject to neither.
Fred Chace of Berger said the supervisor shot the interpreter, Noor Ahmed, in self-defense, and that Afghan authorities had questioned the American before allowing him to leave the country.76 He added that the family of the victim was compensated with “blood money.” Fazel Ahmed, the victim’s brother, disputed the explanation of self-defense and said his brother’s widow and seven children had not received any money from USPI. “He was the sole supporter of that family. USPI has not given them anything and we do not know what happened to my brother. I’m taking this case to the Afghan parliament to call for a formal investigation of my brother’s death, who was martyred.”77
USPI has further sparked controversy over its tactics and close relationships with local warlords. The International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to resolving conflict, has been openly critical of USPI for employing former militias and allowing them to use their position to carry out illegal activities, including drug trafficking.78 There have been few incidences of rogue behavior in the cities where USPI operates, but in rural areas where USPI routinely collaborates with local militia commanders, things can get dicey. The Afghan government, in an effort to quell the civil unrest that threatens the integrity of this newly hatched democracy, has launched a campaign to disarm the warlords and regional militias which fight among themselves for influence over their territories for everything from the heroin trade to the shaking down of interlopers. Critics contend that USPI’s collaboration with these local militamen undermines that effort. One such area where the contradiction was apparent was along the Kabul-Kandahar highway where former militia-turned-police were essentially mercenaries paid to guard the project from other militia.79
USPI provides security for other contractors and NGOs, but The Berger Group is by far its biggest client. Berger hired the firm to keep its workers safe during road construction. USPI teamed up with an infamous commander, General Din Mohammad Jorat, who wielded tremendous power as head of security in the interior ministry. He offered the ministry’s troopers and police—many of whom were former Mujahideen members—opportunities with USPI. The firm does not employ them—the police remain government employees—but provides them “capacity building” or training on the job and pays them $3 to $5 dollars a day for their work. They are given a per diem about twice what their police salaries are. Berger now has a chunk of the Afghan police force as its own private quasi-militia.
We asked one of our sources to contact USPI and inquire as to the cost for round-the-clock security at his firm in Kabul City. He could have, he was told, six guards rotating every 12 hours for $4,200 per month. Our source asked how much profit USPI takes off the top. He was told only 20 percent, which would be $840. We did the math. Assuming each guard is Afghan and receives $120 a month, and six guards would add up to $720, we wondered what happened to the remaining $2,840. The American then offered a la carte options on top of the base price of $4,200: For another $1,000 we could have the blue security box, and for yet another grand we could include communication equipment. It would be just $150 more for the intercom between the guards, which is apparently not part of the “communication equipment.” Our source said that even though we couldn’t account for nearly $3,000 in the quoted price, it was the cheapest deal he could find in Kabul. Still, he said, he did not trust the guards. He suspected that some may have been militia commanders during the civil war that razed Kabul and killed thousands of people.80
The troopers and police who serve as guards are paid far less than the young guns who come from the U.S. and Australia for the adventure, thrill, and good money. All of the guards supply their own weapons, and USPI supplies the uniforms and fatigues. Some of the Afghan police are given rusty Kalashnikovs by the ministry, and use them on their security jobs. Since there aren’t enough for everyone, some are forced to buy their own from the Pakistani black market.
A skilled American USPI guard can earn up to $200,000 annually, about 1,700 times what the average Afghan guard might expect.81 One Afghan protecting one of the Berger offices said he had to buy his own weapon for $200, even though his salary was already too little to pay rent and feed his family. “One of their internationals spends the $3 they give us on their bottled water for a day. When we see that, we refuse to accept the imbalance, the complete unfairness. But at the end of the day, this is all we have.”82
But the close relations between USPI and local corrupt commanders reach beyond the highways into villages and provinces. An official in the interior ministry said they are having a difficult time with the firm because as it protects its clients, USPI is endangering ordinary Afghans. The local commanders are the biggest hindrance to security in some parts of the country. They intimidate, extort money, torture, and kill innocent people. But USPI, the official said, looks the other way and focuses on protecting its clients at any cost.
“They make deals with local commanders who are supposed to be disarmed and do not let us know so that we can at least register them. They are shady characters who use their weapons without responsibility,” the ministry official said. “We’ve asked USPI to stop doing this, but they continue do so.”83
Bill Dupre, the operations manager at the firm in Kabul, did not deny that USPI worked with commanders. “We’d like to think that we know who’s in control and, whereby knowing who’s in control, we’d like to set lines at what point to use which kind of commanders,” he said cryptically in a tense interview in which he complained that the media have been unfairly critical of the company.84
He added that the company prided itself on knowing the culture and the tribal traditions, but does not become involved in politics or tribal affairs. “We’re responsible for protecting the lives of our clients. As such, we do not get involved with the politics of the country,” he said.85
Dupre claimed USPI is providing more than 5,000 jobs for interior ministry employees and hence, contributing to the local economy. USPI employees have undertaken projects to build a school and a clinic with their own money, he says; one USPI employee is known as “The Candy Man” for shipping boxes of candy to Afghan children. USPI owner Barbara Spier, with three other American women, run an NGO, Helping Afghan Women Project, which purchases school supplies for children, funds salaries for more teachers, and renovated one of the public schools in Kabul.
But USPI’s public service work is window dressing, say its critics, for a company that openly consorts with criminals. They point to USPI’s involvement with General Jorat, in particular. Jorat, a former commander in the powerful Jamiat party, was accused of killing the first post-Taliban aviation minister in 2002. An investigation into the assassination resulted in the arrest of two Afghan men, but Jorat escaped prosecution. He vehemently denies the charge.86 Some Afghan officials say Jorat is simply too powerful to be jailed or punished for the death.
Immediately following the fall of the Taliban, Jorat had his own armed militia. In exchange for disarming, Jorat was installed in the new government at first, as head of security and then as head of emergency services in the interior ministry. In his now legitimate position, he still wields tremendous power through his connections with private security firms. He insists he gets no commission from USPI for providing them with guards.
“The men working under me [for USPI] cannot commit a crime and run. They will be punished,” he said. “I give them their incomes and despite popular belief, I do not get any commission.”87
DYNCORP: THE COWBOYS
In August 2004, two months before the Afghan presidential election, a car bomb shook the Kabul headquarters of DynCorp International, one of the world’s largest private security firms. The explosion wounded about 45 people and killed 17—six DynCorp employees, of whom three were American, one Nepalese, and two Afghan. The 11 others killed were mostly civilian Afghan construction workers.88 Whether it was al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other opposition to the government, they got their target, shaking the capital. DynCorp has political significance to the insurgents. Its employees have been everywhere, guarding President Hamid Karzai and training the Afghan police.
Texas-based DynCorp signed worldwide contracts with the U.S. State Department worth billions over the past two decades, and has been involved in security operations in Bosnia, Israel, and Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. Computer Sciences Corporation, which acquired DynCorp in 2003, has itself won more than 1,000 contracts with the government from 1990 through 2002, worth $15.8 billion. DynCorp’s first contract in post-Taliban Afghanistan, awarded in 2002, was worth $50 million, but ballooned to more than $82 million by the middle of 2003, according to the Center for Public Integrity.89 Task orders and amendments to the original contracts continue to increase its value. Curiously, the original contract called for the company to handle security for Karzai for six months, with an option to extend that aspect of the contract to a total of 12 months. (DynCorp gradually turned over Karzai’s security duty and by January 2006, all of his bodyguards were Afghans.) The State Department simply granted a new contract to DynCorp, failing to advertise it for competitive bidding. According to a State Department report justifying the award, “There is no other contractor that can handle this current mission without delays. [DynCorp is] the only company immediately available and qualified. …Formal market research was not conducted,” the report said, “… due to the urgency of the requirement.”90
The renewal was worth $290 million over three years for police training, efforts to curtail the heroin trade in the country, and guarding Karzai from frequent assassination attempts. DynCorp had become a fixture in Kabul, even though its guards no longer protect Karzai.91
The company is highly visible roaming Kabul with its armored cars and M-16 guns. DynCorp houses employees all around Kabul, but its main location was blown up in the suicide bombing. The explosion sent a clear message from the insurgents, and even some Kabul residents had no sympathy for DynCorp. The company had developed an aggressive and unfriendly reputation among residents.
In 2001, a DynCorp engineer in Bosnia discovered that some of his coworkers were buying and selling prostitutes in a massive sex ring. The company sacked the whistleblower and forced him to seek protective custody by the U.S. military to help him escape the Balkans alive. Another whistleblower in Bosnia was also fired. Both were vindicated after filing lawsuits based on racketeering laws.92
In Afghanistan, DynCorp employees have been seen inside brothels, according to CorpWatch sources.93 A DynCorp official did not deny the allegations, but he said that men working for other security companies are often misidentified as DynCorp employees. He said there are rules to prevent such behavior, including curfews and a ban on eating in foreign restaurants or visiting other establishments that might be terror targets. “We try to run an ethical ship here and we insist on it,” the official said with much emotion. “We try to instill a sense of pride that we do not tolerate a sleaze factory. We’re all ambassadors of America.”94
But DynCorp guards, many of whom were former city SWAT team officers, developed a colorfully nasty reputation here; one DynCorp guard, for example, was seen slapping the Afghan transportation minister.95 European diplomats reported threats and abuse directed at them from cocky American guards. The weapon-wielding Westerners were notorious for their rudeness, breaking reporters’ cameras, bossing around dignitaries, and disrespecting the polite Afghan culture. The actions of his bodyguards began to threaten Karzai’s reputation, so State Department rebuked DynCorp.96
DynCorp’s some 800 international employees in Afghanistan—about 95 percent Americans and the rest mostly South African—enjoy six figure salaries, free room and board, and medical insurance. DynCorp called on American police officers to join in Afghanistan with an annual starting salary of $100,324, $80,000 of it tax exempt.97
DynCorp prides itself on offering the best to its personnel—but the cost to taxpayers of maintaining their Western lifestyle in conflict zones runs high. They travel in 300 armored Land Cruisers, each with a price tag of at least $150,000. The company also imports most of the food it provides its employees, including meat, vegetables, and beans. It even feed its Afghan police trainees the imported foods, despite complaints from the interior ministry that the practice is unnecessary and deprives the local economy.
A high ranking former general in the ministry said he had complained that the money DynCorp was spending on importing food from Dubai could be put to better use, especially since the local police didn’t care for the strange foods. But a senior DynCorp official in Kabul said that one week when the imported food did not make it to Kabul, and employees were forced to eat the local food, the company had to deal with 192 cases of food poisoning, including several cases among Afghans.98
DynCorp contends that the complaints are fallacious. “The people who complained in the ministry wanted their relatives to get contracts from DynCorp for catering so that they could make a profit. It was nepotism. We feed thousands of people every day, and we have to be healthy,” he said.99
Most of the thousands of other internationals who work in the country eat the local food and seem to have adapted.
A State Department official in Washington, DC, said the U.S. government is happy with the company’s performance and the high salaries and expenses are expected. “These contractors are getting killed so yes, they do get good money. There’s a small pool of people willing to go out and qualified ones are really valuable,” the official said. “DynCorp is seen as a policy implementer but they’re really not. They provide support and security and they’ve done well in a precarious situation when sometimes there’s a false sense of security.”100
Some Afghan ministers are dubious of such explanations. They see the U.S. government funneling “aid” money right back to American corporations such as DynCorp. “The money the Americans send for the Afghans goes right back into U.S. company pockets,” said one senior official in the interior ministry.101
DynCorp does have its Afghan supporters. One of DynCorp’s most important supporters is the Afghan head of the police-training center in Kabul, General Mirza Mohammad Yarmand. He said the company has worked relentlessly to give police the best training possible. “They have worked with us very well, consulting with every decision and minding our cultural needs. When the trainees asked for a mosque, they made a mosque on site. They do not force their opinion on us,” the general said.102 But he complained that no matter how well trained the police are, their meager salaries of $70 a month will only exacerbate corruption, tempting them to take bribes and payoffs from warlords and militias. Money for police salaries comes from the Law and Order Trust Fund, to which many donor countries contribute. The State Department is working with the Afghan Interior Ministry on a reform system to raise pay and re-organize their ranks.
Armed & untrained
While both Germany and the United States have contractors on the ground to train a new Afghan police force, the Americans are doing the lion’s share of the work. From 2002 until 2005, the U.S. dedicated $804 million to the cause. They had trained more than 60,000 police officers, including 6,000 border police and 1,500 highway patrol by March 2006.103 But a June 2005 Government Accounting Office report revealed that quantity is not the same as quality:
Trainees face difficult working conditions. They return to district police stations that need extensive reconstruction or renovation; militia leaders are often the principal authority; and they lack weapons, vehicles, communications and other equipment. In addition, the police training includes limited field-based training and mentoring, although previous international peacekeeping efforts showed that such mentoring is critical to the success of police training programs. Furthermore, the Afghan Ministry of Interior (which oversees the police force) faces several problems, including corruption, and an outdated rank structure …. [N]either State nor Germany have developed an overall plan specifying how or when construction tasks and equipment purchases will be completed, how much the buildup of the police will cost, and when the overall effort to reconstitute the police will be finished.104
The official from the State Department in Washington said some of the criticism is valid, and that much has changed since the GAO report emerged, but that some things were beyond DynCorps’ control. The difficulty with corruption and criminal commanders in the police force, however, cannot be blamed on the United States, the official said.105 But basic training and recruitment have improved, and a DynCorp official said that a mentoring program had been established to allow senior Afghan police to learn management skills. DynCorp claimed that when trainees and senior officers working under its jurisdiction take bribes, they are fired.106
But bribery remains a major obstacle, as does illiteracy among new recruits. “(Corruption) is so prevalent, they don’t even report it and it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture, they don’t see anything wrong with it,” one of the DynCorp trainers said. “Some police chiefs beat up the police for not taking bribes. The key word is institutionalize. Our Bosnia program fell apart because we didn’t institutionalize it. It will take five to seven years to train them to be like us.”107
DYNCORP AND DRUGS
In spring 2004, dozens of Afghan troops, whom DynCorp paid $5 a day, began eradicating poppy fields around the country. A year later, they reached the poppy fields in the district of Maiwand in Kandahar province. As DynCorp supervisors watched, the troops—armed with bush hogs, knives and tractors—slashed at the ripe poppy stalks. A group of 300 villagers gathered at the site shouting in protest, but the crowd dispersed after the police fired warning shots. Meanwhile, about 25 miles from where DynCorp was monitoring the poppy slashers, some 600 demonstrators descended on Kandahar City to protest the eradication. The farmers shouted that their livelihoods were being destroyed without any compensation. The protest degenerated into violence, and ended in tragedy. Local police—that DynCorp points out had not yet been trained—fired into the crowd and killed 12 people.108
The eradication program, which had been unpopular from inception, halted after this incident but it picked up again this spring. Poppy cultivation is higher in the country now than during the last Taliban years, contributing U.S.$2.8 billion to the Afghanistan economy in 2004 alone. It has steadily grown since the 2001 invasion.109 DynCorp is back in the poppy fields with its Afghan poppy slashers eliminating poppy stalks before they bloom. One of the Afghan directors of the program said he expects the negative reaction. “A person is about to eat dinner and when he’s about to take the first bite, you take the morsel out of his mouth. That’s what we did and we got what we deserved,” he said.110
The eradication program has always been politically unpopular in the country, and quietly, the Afghan and US governments ordered it stopped in the run-up to the Afghan presidential election in 2004, and only resumed afterward. In the end, DynCorp pocketed $150 million for a project that has clearly failed. About 550 Afghans and 90 DynCorp employees worked on the project, and now the Afghans want to know where the money went.
“They fed us, yes, and they housed us, and gave us a measly income but that cost $150 million?” Asked one man who was on the eradication team. “The only new thing we learned from them was how to use (a new, quicker tool) to cut the poppy.”111
A Western official involved in counter narcotics in Afghanistan said the team supervised by DynCorp only destroyed 220 hectares of a planned 10,000 to 15,000 hectares of poppy field.112 (Afghan governor-led efforts eradicated just below 5,000 hectares.) But again, the State Department doesn’t blame DynCorp for the central eradication team’s failure. The official said the effort lacked coordination, communication, and the will on the part of some Afghan government officials to commit.
Back at the drawing board in 2004, the U.S. Congress considered a new strategy: secret aerial spraying. DynCorp, which had previously carried out counter-narcotic spraying over Colombian coca fields and which had just been granted an extension on its federal counter-narcotic contract, was the obvious choice to head up this new eradication strategy aimed at preventing poppies from producing viable seeds.
Shortly thereafter, residents of two poppy-producing provinces reported waking up to find odd pellets covering their crops. People and cattle fell ill. The Afghan and international media reported the event, and many in the government pointed the finger at coalition forces, and specifically at DynCorp.113 The United States, Britain, and DynCorp all deny involvement.114 And their independent investigations, they say, have turned up no evidence that such spraying even occurred.
DynCorp is currently fighting a lawsuit by Ecuadorian peasant farmers who claim their land and their people were intentionally poisoned by the company’s covert spraying on behalf of the U.S. government. A Latin American agency that tested the pesticide cloud that drifted over the Colombian border discovered that the defoliant was a variant of Monsanto’s popular product Roundup, called Roundup Ultra. The substance is purported to be nearly as potent as Agent Orange. The suit is moving forward in the U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act.115
The Transnational Institute (TNI), a Dutch-based think tank specializing in narcotics studies, carried its own investigation by testing the pellets found on the Afghan crops. Martin Jelsma, a researcher for TNI, told us that his tests were inconclusive, but that the substance was almost certainly not Roundup Ultra, because it was delivered in pellets, rather than a fluid. Jelsma hypothesized that the incident might have been a trial run, or that “the sole purpose was to instill fear among farmers (which was in fact very effective), to test out the equipment and to test the political fallout.”116
go to next article
return to table of contents