Officials Work To Fix Private Contractor Dilemma In Afghanistan

The U.S. and NATO have spent billions of dollars training Afghan security forces, and they say getting these forces up to snuff is the key to winning the war and drawing down U.S. forces. So needless to say, they were upset when they found out that some Afghans have been getting the training and then going to work for private security contractors — who are often on Afghan government or Pentagon contracts. The contractors lure them in with higher pay and benefits. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are working with the Afghan government to try to fix the problem. They're working to curb the work of private contractors in the country, and mandating that Afghans who are trained as part of the government security force must serve as a part of it.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai wants to disband private security companies within four months. Those firms pose a dilemma for U.S. and Afghan officials who'd rather see the Afghan military take charge of security. The trouble is that despite billions of dollars spent on training, the army and police just aren't ready to step up.

NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin reports that one of the reasons is that private security contractors have been poaching the best trainees.

RACHEL MARTIN: Getting Afghan security forces to take over the fight is a key part of the current counterinsurgency strategy.

Sergeant ALEX HUFANA(ph) (United States Army): What I want to do is I want to put the first five down there.

(Soundbite of loading weapons)

Unidentified Man #1: Mm-hmm.

Sgt. HUFANA: And then we're going to do (unintelligible).

MARTIN: So this is a familiar scene around Afghanistan.

Sgt. HUFANA: Okay. Remember, weapons always at a ready, all right?

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: U.S. troops training Afghan security forces, often starting with the very basics.

Army Sergeant Alex Hufana is part of the unit put in charge of training Afghan police along the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

Sgt. HUFANA: What we noticed was a lot of people were pointing their weapon in different directions. And that's the first thing we immediately jumped on, safety, safety, safety.

MARTIN: Equally as important, making sure the men they're training feel invested in the effort so they don't get lured over to private security firms that offer better working conditions and can pay twice as much.

The Afghan police commander working with Sergeant Hufana says it's a problem, but so far, he's been able to dodge it.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: We treat our soldiers very well, he tells me. We try to inspire them, tell them it's not about money; it's about defending this country and making it better.

U.S. military officials say getting Afghans to stick around after getting trained has been a major obstacle to getting Afghan National Security Forces up to snuff. According to one NATO official in Kabul, attrition rates at their worst have been close to 60 percent.

Colonel Dennis Devery is the deputy director for the group charged with developing the Afghan security forces.

Colonel DENNIS DEVERY (Deputy Director, Afghan National Security Forces Development Assistance Bureau): Government and the coalition forces were training personnel and giving them this great experience that they were then taking and using for private security companies, and so that became a problem.

MARTIN: Devery says there was nothing to keep them from doing so, until recently when the government passed a new rule, saying Afghans who are trained for the army must serve at least three years. There's still no such mandate for police.

Salaries have also gone up. Afghan National Army troops now get hazard pay for deploying to dangerous areas. And Afghan National Police got a 25 percent raise, bringing their salary to at least $165 every month.

But Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says if you're an Afghan soldier or policeman, that's not enough.

Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies): So there you are, deployed somewhere outside your area, without adequate salary, with all kinds of temptations with security forces - the private contractors are only one - you don't have adequate leave, and this goes on to the point where people don't re-enlist or they simply leave.

MARTIN: Cordesman points out that trainees also get absorbed into local militias. But it's the private security companies that have the U.S. military concerned. Often, these firms are working for the U.S. government, and hiring Afghans who were trained to serve with the army or police undercuts the overall strategy.

Colonel Dennis Devery says the U.S. and NATO need to think more strategically.

Col. DEVERY: And so we've realized that there have been mistakes in the past. And we're taking a look at how contracts are done in the future, and where can we use government security forces as opposed to private security companies.

MARTIN: Contractors need to be reigned in, says Anthony Cordesman. But the bigger problem, he says, is getting Afghans to sacrifice their self-interest for the larger mission.

Dr. CORDESMAN: This is a society where no one feels secure. Everyone wants to get as much as they can while they can. No one really knows who they can trust or who's going to be around in two years.

MARTIN: And that's the challenge, say U.S. and NATO officials, convincing Afghan security forces and civilians that there's something worth fighting for.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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