In early November, five British soldiers in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province were killed in an attack at a checkpoint. Six other British soldiers and two members of the Afghan National Police were wounded. The attacker was also a member of the ANP working alongside the British troops. He had been trained at a NATO-supported police academy in Kandahar and had worked as a policeman for three years.
Soon after the incident, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. “We want to sow mistrust between the Afghan National Police and foreign forces,” a Taliban spokesperson said. The Pentagon downplayed the significance of the incident: “However tragic and criminal this act was, it represents a rare and, luckily, thus far isolated incident,” said spokesperson Geoff Morrell.
The deadly attack highlighted the crisis of loyalty facing US-led forces in Afghanistan as training of Afghan forces becomes a central part of President Obama’s strategy. In his speech at West Point, Obama emphasized that the surge of 30,000 US troops in Afghanistan “will increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”
As the number of US troops surges, so too will the number of US contracts for security and other services. In late November, new guidelines were issued by the US Joint Contracting Command for security contracts in Afghanistan requiring private security companies to “hire a minimum of 50% of its guard force from within a 50 kilometer [thirty-mile] radius of the location requiring security.” At present, according to the Defense Department, there are 104,100 contractors in Afghanistan, most of whom are Afghans. A December report by the Congressional Research Service projects the overall number of contractors in Afghanistan could swell to 160,000 as a result of the surge in US military forces.
The surge in contractors will mean that thousands more Afghans will be hired to work at US bases, guard US installations and participate in expanded US training programs. This presents a dangerous challenge for the US military: balancing the need to enlist Afghans in US operations with the risk of blowback or insurgents’ infiltration of US bases and other facilities.
The shooting of the British soldiers in Helmand and a series of other attacks by supposed US allies have put US forces on guard with their Afghan employees. This is particularly true when it comes to Afghans guarding US military facilities in the country. Take the case of the Qalaa House compound in Kabul, home of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). To protect its facility, the USACE hired local Afghan guards working for a company listed in federal contract documents as Burhan Security Services. According to military contract documents, the Army believes that without this company’s guards, there could be “catastrophic mission failure.” A USACE spokesperson in Afghanistan told The Nation by phone from Qalaa House that Burhan forces were given “special consideration” for the contract because they are “from a village that was targeted heavily by the Taliban. We selected them basically because of how much they hate the Taliban and because they are less likely to be Taliban or to be sympathetic to them. They’ve been extremely loyal thus far.” In the aftermath of the Helmand shooting, the spokesperson said, the USACE reviewed Burhan and was “reassured” there was no similar risk.
Since 2007, Burhan has been paid more than $1.5 million to protect the US military at Qalaa House. The USACE clearly believes that without the company, the facility would be in serious jeopardy of an attack. In October, the USACE submitted a request to beef up Burhan’s services by hiring more security guards, interpreters and escorts–a request that could not have been written with more urgency.
It is “essential to the safety and preservation of life of USACE personnel,” said the request, which was signed by several US military contracting officials. “Failure or delay to procure these services risks loss of life and catastrophic mission failure.” Qalaa House, the request said, “is under constant threat of violence from anti-coalition forces and enemies of Afghanistan.” In addition to providing security for the compound, the Burhan guards also provide “security escorts” for about forty USACE personnel in Kabul. The request states bluntly that these people “could not accomplish their mission” without the Burhan forces. “The risks to the US Government are too great otherwise.”
The Army’s arrangement with Burhan and other companies like it across Afghanistan demonstrates the extent to which the most powerful military on earth depends on protection from local Afghans. This phenomenon will only expand as the number of contractors in Afghanistan grows.
Burhan Security Services does not appear to have a website, and its headquarters is listed in US contract documents as being on Nadar Pashtoon Street in Kabul. The firm is listed by the Afghan Interior Ministry as a registered security firm based in Afghanistan. According to records from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Burhan Security has also won two prime security contracts with the US government in Iraq. In September, Burhan posted a job application on a Pakistani website seeking a “Marketing Executive to market our services into the industry.” On the site, Burhan describes itself as “a global leading provider of security solutions,” saying “Burhan Security proposes a new security workforce, specially designed to firmly combat new types of crime.”