The US lost a 20-year campaign in which it tried to change the face of Afghanistan, but many private contractors won big.
The people who benefited from the inflow of government money range from large arms manufacturers and traders to entrepreneurs who took advantage of opportunities that came their way. Thus a California businessman running a bar in Kyrgyzstan set up a fuel business, which brought him billions; Or a young Afghan translator who managed to turn a bedding agreement for American soldiers into a business empire that now includes a television station and a local airline. Two U.S. Army guards opened a small business that provided Afghan translators to the military – the business grew and became one of the military’s largest contractors. The company has won nearly $ 4 billion in federal contracts.
Four months after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, the U.S. is still learning lessons learned from the incident. Among them, senior officials and observers say, are trying to examine lessons learned from the military’s reliance on private contractors on the battlefield and its impact on war management costs.
Since the attack on the twins in 2001, military outsourcing has increased Pentagon spending to $ 14 trillion, creating opportunities for profit as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue.
A third to a half of that amount went to contractors, and five companies engaged in military production – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman – won tenders for about $ 2.1 trillion, for weapons, supplies and other services – according to the “Cost” project. The University of Brown’s Costs of War Project, a group of researchers and legal experts trying to draw attention to what they call the “hidden influence of the U.S. military.”
The money is spilled without sufficient criticism
An impressive display was also given by smaller companies that earned billions of dollars for training Afghan police officers, paving roads, setting up schools and providing security to Western diplomats.
For the past two decades, both Republican and Democratic governments have seen the use of contractors as a way to reduce the number of casualties among soldiers. When fighting a war with an army that is entirely voluntary and smaller than in previous conflicts, and without conscription, “you have to outsource so much to contractors who will do actions for you,” said Christopher Miller, who was sent to Afghanistan in 2005 as the Green Berets’ elite patrolman. He then became the de facto defense minister in recent months of the Trump administration.
The large amounts of money spent on the war effort and the reconstruction of Afghanistan after years of conflict have stretched the limits of the U.S. government’s ability to select contractors and ensure that the money is optimally utilized in a way that serves the defined purposes.
The U.S. Attorney General’s Office for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, a job created to monitor nearly $ 150 billion spent on the country’s reconstruction, cataloged hundreds of reports of waste and sometimes even cases of fraud.
$ 6 million for 9 goats from Italy
A survey produced by the ministry in 2021 found that out of $ 7.8 billion in projects examined by the ministry’s inspectors, only $ 1.2 billion, or 15%, was used as intended for new roads, hospitals, bridges and factories. At least $ 2.4 billion, the report said, was spent on military planes, police stations, agricultural programs and other development projects, which were later abandoned, destroyed or used for other purposes.
The Pentagon has spent $ 6 million on a nine-goat import project from Italy to bolster the cashmere market in Afghanistan. The project has never grown in scale and expanded. The U.S. International Development Agency has given $ 270 million to a contractor to build nearly 2,000 kilometers of dirt roads in Afghanistan. USAID said they canceled the project after the company paved 160 kilometers of road in three years of work that left more than 125 dead in rebel attacks.
According to Major Rob Ludwick, a Pentagon spokesman, “the special support given by thousands of contractors to U.S. military missions in Afghanistan has served many important roles including the release of uniformed forces to the vital combat effort.”
John Sofko, Afghanistan’s Special Inspector General for Reconstruction since 2012, has documented contractors’ failures for years. According to him, many of them did their best to fulfill the demands that policymakers placed on them, and policymakers are the ones who made bad decisions.
“It’s so easy to say that all contractors are cheating or profiting from the war,” Suppo said. “Factually some of them made a lot of money – but this is the capitalist method.”
Private contractors since the War of Independence
American use of military contractors began as early as the American Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army relied on private companies to supply supplies and even raids made with the help of ships. So too in World War II, then for every seven soldiers, there was one contractor – so according to data from the Congressional Budget Office.
The procedure flourished again in the 1990s, around the Gulf War. Later, the decision to go to war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks caught the Pentagon unprepared, which actually began the process of downsizing the army with the end of the Cold War.
Since the attack on the twins in 2001, the outsourcing of the military has led to an increase in Pentagon spending to $ 14 trillion / Photo: Reuters, Erik de Castro
In 2008, the United States had 187,900 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, there were another 203,660 contract staff. The ratio of contractor workers to soldiers increased. When President Obama ordered most troops to leave Afghanistan at the end of his second term, more than 25,000 contractors were in Afghanistan. Compared to 9,800 soldiers.
By the time former President Donald Trump left office, four years later, there were 18,000 contractors left in Afghanistan and only 2,400 troops.
This hides the cost of the war
“Contracting seems to be moving in only one direction – enlargement – regardless of whether the White House is home to a Democrat or a Republican,” said Heidi Peltia, of the “Cost of War” project. According to Peltia, reliance on contractors has led to an increase in the “hidden economy” through which the U.S. government has hidden the cost of the war so that public support for it is not harmed.
More than 3,500 American contractors have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to incomplete data from the Ministry of Employment. More than 7,000 American soldiers died in a two-decade war.
One of the entrepreneurs who saw the war as a business opportunity, is Doug Edelman, from California. Edelman set up a bar and traded fuel in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan in 1998. Three years later, when the war began in neighboring Afghanistan, Bishkek became a supply and recreation center for American soldiers. Edelman joined a local partner and ran two companies, Red Star and Mina Corp., which became vital partners in the war effort, his former colleagues said.
After winning a series of contracts from the Pentagon and becoming a sole franchisee, Edelman’s companies supplied fuel to a fleet of refueling aircraft, based in Bishkek. Within Afghanistan, his company built a fuel pipeline at the U.S. Air Force base in Bagram.
His companies won billions of dollars in contracts, and Edelman earned millions of dollars, according to a lawsuit filed in California in 2020 by his former colleague, who claimed that Edelman had cut his stake in one of the companies he was a partner in. Meanwhile, with the big money he managed to make, Edelman moved to a mansion in London, which used to belong to media mogul Conrad Black. Edelman denied the allegations in his response to the lawsuit.
Contracts for translators in the hundreds of millions of dollars
Mission Essential Group, the Ohio-based company that has become the largest U.S. military translation provider in Afghanistan, demonstrates how the contracting method works.
The company was established in 2003 after two soldiers, Chad Monin and Greg Miller, chatted among themselves about an Arabic lesson about the poor quality of the interpreters with whom the army works. They thought they could do it better. By 2007, they had already won a $ 300 million five-year contract to provide the army with interpreters and consultants for local culture in Afghanistan.
In 2008, the United States had 187,900 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, there were another 203,660 contractors / Photo: Reuters, Omar Sobhani
The company grew rapidly. Monin, told by Mission Essential staff that he used to sleep in his car to save money on hotel rooms, moved into a $ 1.3 million home he bought, which covers an area of 600 square meters near a golf course, and bought myself a 1970s Ferrari.
When Afghanistan’s military mission began to shrink in 2012, Mission Essential said there was pressure to cut costs. The company opened the contracts with the Afghan translators and reduced their salaries by about 20% -25%. In other words, the average salary dropped from $ 750 a month in 2012 to $ 500 in 2021.
“They took billions of dollars from the U.S. government but the way they treated the translators was very inhuman,” says Anis Khalil, an American-Afghan translator who worked as a subcontractor for Mission Essential for several months.
He and other former employees say that some Afghan translators, who worked alongside American soldiers in the toughest areas of Afghanistan, sometimes received only $ 300 a month. The company said it has no registrations for any employee who received $ 300 a month while working full-time. On the contrary, the company claims that the interpreters received “a very good salary compared to the average salaries in the market.” It was also reported that the company made very great efforts right up to the end to help the company’s employees escape the Taliban regime.
Inadequate supervision of contractors
In January 2010, an Afghan translator who worked for Mission Essential at the U.S. Army Special Forces base near Kabul obtained a handgun and killed two American soldiers. According to the families, the lawsuit was intended to get the government to address what they defined as inadequate supervision of contractor workers.
According to Miller, the shooting in 2010 was a “tragedy” and added that it was the only incident of its kind in 17 years in which the company worked in war zones. Later, Miller added, the military cleared the company of any criminal responsibility for the incident. The U.S. military declined to comment.
By the end of 2010, Mission Essential employed nearly 7,000 interpreters working with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. It raised more than $ 860 million, which it received from the Department of Defense in 2012.
As the number of troops was reduced in Afghanistan, so did Mission Essential’s federal contracts. Miller said his and Monin had different visions about the way the company should grow. Monin, who refused to talk about his days at the company, agreed to sell his stake in it to Miller.
Disputes have also erupted between Miller and two board members in a lawsuit filed in 2018 and still pending. Board members accuse Miller of employing relatives without proper qualifications; In spending millions of dollars from the company’s money on private matters; In taking payment from the company in the amount of $ 1 million for a plane, in which he flew his family members; And in taking a salary of $ 500,000 annually without approval from the board of directors.
Miller claims that Mission Essential is a “family business” and that two of his brothers work for the company in positions they are certainly capable of performing. As for the plane, he says it was used by executives to travel to business meetings across the country and was sold when it was no longer needed.
Private Contractors in the Service of the U.S. Army in Afghanistan / Photo: Reuters, Mohammad Ismail
Miller denied the allegations and accused board members of trying to use Mission Essential as their cash machine and using illegal drugs, which endangered the company’s status – this can be learned from documents submitted to the court. Miller accuses the two of trying to use the legal system to get a better deal in exchange for giving up their shares in the company.
Next destination: Mainland Africa
By the time U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the last U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan in August, Mission Essential had cut its workforce to about 1,000 people. Nearly 90 of the company’s workers were killed in the war, Miller said. The Kabul in U.S. Air Force planes used to leave the country in August, he said.
By then, Miller had been working on a rebranding of Mission Essential. The company won a $ 12 million contract to supply the U.S. military with translators in Africa, and is currently working to diversify its business by acquiring a technology company.