The killing of three US Pentagon contractors at the hands of a uniformed Afghan Army soldier in Kabul last week casts considerable doubt on President Obama’s recent proclamation that America’s “combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”
The US-trained Afghan security forces have now “taken the lead” in the fourteen-year-old war, Obama told Congress in his State of the Union address on January 20.
But after digging into the contractors involved and the circumstances behind their untimely deaths, it’s apparent that the US-led war against the Taliban is still in full swing, and that Americans—along with many Afghans—will continue to die.
“If you define combat mission as only having large numbers of US combat troops in the field, doing patrols, and engaging the Taliban, then, yes, it is coming to an end,” says David Isenberg, a Navy veteran and author who has been researching private security and military contractors since the early 1990s. “But if you define it as continuing to attack and degrade those you consider hostile, via drone or Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries, all of which are supported by contractors, then not so much.”
The slain contractors were working for Praetorian Standard Inc., of Fayetteveille, North Carolina. The Pentagon told reporters the men were “overseeing maintenance work” on a fleet of Pilatus PC-12 surveillance and intelligence aircraft. The PC-12s, known by the US military as U-28s, are used extensively by US Special Operations Command forces in Afghanistan and covert wars throughout the world. In 2013, as part of its program to train the Afghan military, the Pentagon handed over a fleet of the planes to the government in Kabul.
Last May, Sierra Nevada Corporation, a well-connected company based in Sparks, Nevada, was awarded a $34.4 million, single-sourced contract by the US Air Force to provide logistics support for eighteen modified versions of the Pilatus PC-12 for the Afghan army’s special forces. The surveillance program is managed out of Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the home of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
PSI and Sierra Nevada are part of a huge force of private contractors in Afghanistan doing work for the U.S. military, the CIA and the US Agency for International Development. So far, the United States has spent about $65 billion to build and train Afghanistan’s military and police forces, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR.
A tally of SIGAR’s most recent numbers published by Professional Overseas Contractors, a private association, says the Department of Defense currently employs 39,609 contractors in Afghanistan, 42 percent of whom work in logistics and maintenance. In contrast, the current US mission in Afghanistan, called “Resolute Support,” involves about 12,000 troops, most of them from the US military.
Most press reports have described the attack on the PSI contractors as a random “blue on green” attack—Afghans killing Americans—like the ones that have plagued US-Afghan relations over the past year (the levels of the attacks has been stunning, as The Washington Post documented in its report on the Kabul incident).
But it’s clear that the killings were a strategic hit by the Taliban on a key element in Obama’s “advisory” war.
The shooting took place “at close range in the Afghan air force hangar at Kabul’s international airport,” NBC News reported. The Afghan soldier was then shot dead. An Afghan Air Force official on the scene told Reuters that “it was unclear” why the infiltrator “shot these [American] advisers,” adding that “no one was there to tell us a reason.”
The next day, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid took to social media to proclaim that the attacker had infiltrated the Afghan military with the express purpose of attacking the Americans working in that hangar. He managed “to attain his goal and opened fire with his rifle on a group of American occupiers,” casting “a number of the occupying disbelievers into the abyss of hell,” Mujahid wrote, according to the Post.
Shortly after the Taliban statement came out, Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby gave the official story for the US government. He told reporters the incident was “under investigation” so he could not speak to either “the motivation or identification” of the “assailant,” who “was in an Afghan uniform.”
Asked about the Taliban assertions that the killer was planted, Kirby demurred: “We don’t have any information to confirm or deny ultimate organizational responsibility for this.” In a statement widely quoted in the media, Kirby characterized the attack as “a tragic and grim reminder that Afghanistan still remains a dangerous place in many ways.”
Indeed. And it’s particularly dangerous for contractors helping the Pentagon with its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and assisting US forces with their campaign to help foreign investors exploit Afghanistan’s extensive mineral resources. That is precisely what PSI is doing.
What Is PSI Doing in Afghanistan?
PSI is typical of the hundreds of specialized contractors working for the CIA, the US military and the secretive Special Operations Command. It was founded by its CEO, Richard “Dick” Davis, who is described on PSI’s website as a former Sergeant Major “in the US Army’s Special Operations community.”
In fact, according to the privately run Special Operations Warrior Foundation, where Davis sits on the board, he served in the Joint Special Operations Command—the feared and highly secretive military unit highlighted by Jeremy Scahill in his film Dirty Wars.
PSI has “a long history of support to the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community,” the website proclaims. “We consider this to be one of our core missions.”
The ties run deep. Before founding PSI, Davis was vice president for the special operations division of SAIC, one of the Pentagon’s (and NSA’s) most important contractors, where he worked as a “liaison between SAIC and the Special Operations community,” his biography states. PSI’s tasks include “intelligence coordination, protection management and situational awareness.”
PSI’s Davis, reached by phone at his office in North Carolina, would not comment about the attack on his men. “Because I am a subcontractor, I legally can’t talk about it,” he told The Nation.
In a statement released through PSI attorney Tom Lujan, Davis identified the deceased contractors as Walter Fisher, Jason Landphair and Matthew Fineran. According to local press reports, Fisher and Fineran were former policemen. Landphair was an Army veteran who did several tours of Afghanistan as a member of the US Army Special Forces.
“These brave men died protecting their fellow Americans,” Davis said in the PSI statement. “They are heroes.” He referred to the shooting as a “terrorist act.” A fourth PSI contractor, Bradley James, was seriously wounded in the incident and is expected to survive.
The Pilatus PC-12 the men were working on is a mainstay of the Air Force Special Operations Command, according to several military publications. “Typically painted in civilian colors, these aircraft insert, extract and resupply special operations forces within the theater of operations as well as carrying out surveillance and intelligence operations,” says a publication called American Special Ops.
The PC-12s are flown “on missions to remote airstrips around the world where the pretense of a large C-130 in USAF markings won’t be too welcome by the locals,” the web publication DefenseTech reported in 2012 after an Air Force Special Operations version of the plane crashed in Africa, killing four Americans. It’s these aircrafts that are supplied to Afghanistan’s Special Forces’ Special Mission Wing to help in counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations.
Sierra Nevada, the prime contractor for PSI in Kabul, has a deep relationship with a highly secretive Air Force spying and surveillance program called “Big Safari,” according to Aram Roston, an investigative reporter with Buzzfeed.
Last June, it formed a “strategic alliance” with DynCorp International, the largest single US contractor in Afghanistan, to maintain and modify fixed wing aircraft for the US Army and other customers around the world. On January 8, just a month ago, DynCorp was awarded a $100 million contract by the US Army to provide “advisory, training and mentoring services” to Afghanistan’s national army and police.
Exploiting Afghanistan’s Mineral Resources
True to its imperial name, Praetorian is also involved in a major Pentagon project to convince US and foreign investors and mining companies to develop Afghanistan’s extensive mineral wealth.
The program, run by a Department of Defense Task Force for Business Stability Operations with the US Army’s Corp of Engineers, was first described by New York Times reporter James Risen in 2010. At the time, Afghan officials estimated that their deposits of copper, gold, lithium and other minerals could be worth as much as $3 trillion.
Davis, PSI’s CEO, “provided leadership” to support the Pentagon Task Force while C. Mark King, its director of special projects, “oversaw the operational execution of programs to facilitate mineral exploitation and investments at significant deposits located throughout Afghanistan,” the company’s website states. In 2013, the work of the Task Force was hailed as “essential to building long-term stability” by the International Stability Operations Association, which represents many contractors in Afghanistan.
But getting the Pentagon to respond to public demands for accountability for the attacks and the contractors’ role in Afghanistan may be difficult. It turns out that both programs PSI is involved in—Afghanistan’s Special Mission Wing and the Pentagon’s Business Task Force—are under investigation by SIGAR. It was established by Congress in 2008 to oversee all reconstruction spending in Afghanistan.
In 2013, SIGAR audited the $772 million project to provide new aircraft for Afghanistan’s Special Mission Wing and found that “the Afghans lack the capacity—in both personnel numbers and expertise—to operate and maintain the existing and planned SMW fleets.” SIGAR found that “key task orders lacked performance metrics, that contractors failed to account properly for maintenance hours and misrepresented readiness, and that DOD personnel in Kabul lacked the authority and experience to provide effective oversight of contractor performance.”
And in December 2014, the special inspector general began what he called a “full-court press” to determine how the Pentagon mismanaged its Business Task Force in Afghanistan. “They’ve spent approximately $700, $800 million, and as far as we can see, they’ve accomplished nothing,” SIGAR John Sopko wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailing the corruption.
But the oversight group was stunned in late January when US Commanders in Afghanistan decided that much of the data in its future reports would be kept secret. SIGAR issued a rebuke in its press release on the publication of its latest quarterly report, published on January 30.
“After six years of being publicly reported, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) data is now classified,” SIGAR said in a statement released by Alex Bronstein-Moffly, its director of public affairs. “The decision leaves SIGAR unable to publicly report on most of the $65 billion US-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the ANSF.”
The decision to classify the Afghan contractor information outraged many in Congress and sparked a sarcastic blast from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Partly in response, the US Command backtracked on its classification order on Monday, saying that some data had been inadvertently combined with “related classified information” and would be released.
At press time, both of SIGAR’s investigations were in play. But it was unclear how much its conclusions would be made available to either Congress or the public. “I believe they have classified the data related to SMW,” a US official told me after I asked about the surveillance aircraft project.
That’s not going to sit well with a lot of people, especially those from the hometown of the Americans who died in the attack.
“When we think about the American presence in Afghanistan, we tend to think about our soldiers,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial Monday. “But the truth is that we have many more private contractors than soldiers there, doing jobs that range from security to maintenance. And they are vulnerable too, a lesson we relearned last week.”