Three Afghan security contractors work in Maywand district, Kandahar, Afghanistan. Some contractors' out-of-control actions are frustrating U.S. military leaders. (Army Times)
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HUTAL, Afghanistan — Ill-disciplined private security guards escorting supply convoys to coalition bases are wreaking havoc as they pass through western Kandahar province, undermining the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy here and leading to at least one confrontation with U.S. forces, say U.S. Army officers and Afghan government officials.
The security guards are responsible for killing and wounding more than 30 innocent civilians during the past four years in Maywand district alone, said Mohammad Zareef, the senior representative in the district for Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security.
Highway 1, the country's main east-west artery, runs through Maywand and is the route taken by logistics convoys moving west from Kabul and Kandahar to coalition bases in Helmand province. The Afghan government's district chief for Maywand says the men hired to protect the convoys are heroin addicts armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
The contractors' actions are frustrating U.S. military leaders in Maywand and undermining coalition efforts to bring a greater sense of security to the Afghan people, particularly because the locals associate the contractors with the coalition.
"They'll start firing at anything that's moving, and they will injure or kill innocent Afghans, and they'll destroy property," said Lt. Col. Jeff French, commander of 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment and Task Force Legion, the main coalition force in Maywand since mid-September. French has vowed to take tough action against contractors involved in violent acts against civilians.
The problem of out-of-control security contractors operating at cross-purposes to the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy is similar to the one that dogged the U.S. military and its allies in Iraq, with one major difference: unlike Iraq, where there were a series of high-profile incidents involving U.S. security personnel, here the guards causing the problems are Afghans.
About twice a week convoys up to 50 vehicles long pass through Maywand en route to coalition bases in Helmand carrying fuel and other bulk goods coming from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, said Capt. Casey Thoreen, commander of 2-1 Infantry's B Company, which operates from Combat Outpost Rath, located less than 100 meters from Highway 1 in the town of Hutal.
Although the convoys sometimes carry U.S. military vehicles and represent a vital lifeline for the coalition effort, no Afghan, U.S. or other coalition military forces accompany them. Instead, each convoy is protected by Afghan security guards armed with AK-series assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in sport utility vehicles — "black 4Runners, full of guys in these tan uniforms, with lots of guns sticking out of them," Thoreen said. "These guys are like gun-toting mercenaries with probably not a whole lot of training. … They're just light on the trigger finger."
Haji Obidullah Bawari, the Afghan government's district chief for Maywand, rendered an even harsher judgment. "Most of them are addicted to heroin," he said.
Until recently, the identities of the companies for whom the security guards worked remained shrouded in mystery, even from the coalition headquarters whose troops they are supplying. French said he requested information on the companies through his higher brigade headquarters — 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division — but had yet to receive any word back.
An International Security Assistance Force spokesman said the convoy security workers are employees of the logistics contractors running the convoys. Those contractors work for one or several of the ISAF, NATO or 26 countries operating in Afghanistan. As a result, he said he did not know how much is spent on the security firms or which companies had hired them.
Asked about allegations of heroin use and improper conduct, ISAF spokesman Col. Wayne M. Shanks said that while neither ISAF nor Regional Command-South has a vetting role in the selection of the security guards, "all credible allegations of improper actions by contractors are fully investigated."
Over the past several weeks, local leaders have voiced complaints about the security contractors, prompting French to ask more questions about the contractors' behavior. He said the answers he received troubled him.
"They roll through, and if they see something that seems like a threat to them, or they feel that they're under attack, the local Afghans are saying that they just start to lase and blaze," French said. "They don't stop, they don't wait for the police to come and do an investigation or anything; they just take off."
Among incidents this year involving the security guards in Maywand, according to Zareef, the NDS chief:
• On May 9, contractors shot dead an Afghan National Policeman manning a checkpoint on Highway 1, then drove away.
• Contractors left their broken-down car for a night at a gas station and found the next morning that insurgents had burned it. In their anger, the security guards turned their guns on the local population. "They started shooting and killed a kid," Zareef said.
• On March 28, speeding contractors killed a local man and his wife, and injured their child, when the security guards' SUV hit the motorcycle on which the family was riding.
• Afghans arrested a convoy security guard for the March 4 killing of a kuchi, or nomadic herder.
Zareef's accounts were consistent with the reports received by U.S. commanders.
"We're getting fairly consistent complaints about them," Thoreen said. "Everybody knows somebody who's been shot by the contractors."
When the Taliban hit their targets, the security guards show little compassion for their wounded, French said.
"They will literally dump them on the road out here," he said. Those who come to the base seeking medical aid get it and "on several occasions" the U.S. forces medically evacuated them to more sophisticated coalition medical facilities.
"There's no give-a-s— factor in them when it comes to their employees," he said. The firms' attitude was: "Good luck — it sucks to be you. You're in Maywand. We're kicking you to the curb."
Taking on the problem
French said he is planning to turn the issue to his advantage by taking a hard line with the convoy escorts, demonstrating the value of coalition and Afghan security forces to the local population. He said that at a "shura" meeting called to discuss security issues with local leaders, he committed himself to trying to solve the contractor problem.
French told the local leaders that he had ordered his troops that if they received credible reports of security guards shooting at civilians, they were to move immediately to the site and investigate the incident by talking to Afghan security forces, local civilians and the convoy escorts.
"If … we feel that they were acting inappropriately and endangering people in this district, my intent is to basically take control of those individuals in that convoy, bring them back to Ramrod and lock them up in here … call their company, make sure we can get some kind of an understanding regarding their operations, and then my guys will personally escort them out of Maywand district," French said.
On Nov. 15, French was able to back up his words with action. After receiving word of shooting from the vicinity of Highway 1 as three convoys were rolling through Maywand, 2-1 Infantry's quick reaction force set up a checkpoint on the highway outside the battalion's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Ramrod and pulled over two of the convoys at gunpoint before taking the two convoys' security chiefs into the base for questioning.
One security chief, Fidal Mohammed, claimed to have 48 men under arms. He said he worked for a company called DIAK, said 2-1 Infantry's executive officer, Maj. Dave Abrahams, who conducted the meetings. Mohammed also gave Abrahams the names of several other companies that work the convoy escort business along Highway 1. The other security chief, who gave his name as Lalai, said he worked for a company called Angar and commanded 52 armed men.
Abrahams said he told each man that Task Force Legion would not tolerate misconduct by security companies along Highway 1 and that "any reports of security convoys firing on civilians or indiscriminately into the villages will be investigated and wrongdoers will be punished."
Speaking before the Nov. 15 episode, French said he was hoping to achieve "multiple effects" by confronting the contractors. "Most of the positive effects will be the populace seeing us taking action to protect them," he said.