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The civilian presence in modern warfare Print
Mike Blanchfield - The Ottawa Citizen - November 19, 2007
 
HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan - A rusty dumptruck pulls up to this remote, battle-scarred village and Samiullah Noory jumps out, a handgun tucked beneath his tunic.

Mr. Noory's company, Rahmat Sadat Construction, has been hired to deliver thousands of kilograms of gravel that Canadian combat engineers will use to build a security outpost for the Afghan National Army.

It's a job few Afghan companies are willing to take. Earlier this year, the Taliban killed Mr. Noory's older brother, who also worked as a contractor for NATO forces. That's when Mr. Noory, a supervisor for Rahmat Sadat, started carrying a gun to work.

"They said, 'Why do you work with the Americans, the foreigners?' " he said. "I'll be killed one day, too. But I'm not afraid of dying."

Mr. Noory's perseverance can be at least partly explained by something basic -- money. According to a CanWest News Service analysis, Rahmat Sadat has received more than $826,000 worth of business from the Canadian Forces in the past 18 months -- profitable work in a country where the average annual income is about $300.

Welcome to the front line of the business of war.

In the past two decades, western governments have entrusted an increasing range of traditional military duties to civilian contractors. After the Cold War, countries, including Canada, cut their military budgets and troop levels. At the same time, the boundaries of modern warfare were rapidly changing. Armed with ever more sophisticated equipment, soldiers were deploying with greater frequency to hotspots around the world. Meanwhile, governments were increasingly outsourcing public services.

Military leaders say the use of private contractors allows soldiers to concentrate on what they do best: fighting the enemy.

"I see no reason why we should use highly trained military manpower to do what are some quite basic jobs," says British Gen. David Richards, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban insurgency last year.

But the growth of the civilian contracting industry has raised some fundamental questions: Who are these contractors and to whom are they accountable? Who is responsible when they are killed or injured? Can the government depend on them to deliver services at all costs? And should Canada be awarding contracts to former Afghan warlords?

In a five-part series beginning today, CanWest News Service examines the entire mini-economy of firms that support Canada's biggest military engagement in half a century, the war in Afghanistan. In recent years, civilian contractors have become so deeply embedded in the military infrastructure that Canadian soldiers rely on them every time they eat a meal, use the washroom and switch off their lamps at night. The series will focus on contractors offering services on the ground, but will also examine companies that produce goods such as bottled water and equipment such as guns and ammunition.

At the top of the contracting hierarchy is SNC-Lavalin PAE, the Forces' prime logistics provider. Under a 10-year contract worth as much as $700 million, the company provides a range of support services, from the maintenance of non-combat vehicles to the management of the military's internal communications system at Kandahar Airfield. The company is employed under the Canadian Forces Contractor Augmentation Program, known as CANCAP.

Dalhousie University researcher David Perry, one of the few academics to study the subject, says government watchdogs in the United States have extensively reviewed civilian contracting. Some critics, however, say Canada lacks comparable oversight systems.

One of the only known audits of the CANCAP program was completed last year by the military's chief of review services (CRS). That June 2006 report found the military lacks an overall policy on the use of contractors, and has not conducted a thorough cost analysis. It found many senior officers lack the expertise to monitor quality assurance, or even audit an invoice. But the military says it has stepped up training and improved oversight of the program since the report.

The finding was echoed in a December 2006 slide show on CANCAP, released under the Access to Information Act. Prepared for the Forces' Expeditionary Command, the branch of the military that controls all overseas missions, it called for additional reporting on quality assurance.

Questions about transparency and accountability extend beyond CANCAP. The Defence Department has refused to disclose the names of contractors that have received almost $42 million on the Afghanistan file. CanWest News Service obtained the list through Access to Information, but the department blanked out all vendor names, citing a section of the law that allows the government to withhold information harmful to the "defence of Canada."

The data show the military has considerable discretion over how contracts in Afghanistan are awarded and disclosed. The $42 million in contracts are stored on an internal departmental database. Some contracts in the database have been disclosed on the department's website, but many have not. Furthermore, military commanders are not required to report all contracts to the internal database, according to department officials. Therefore, it is impossible to know how many contracts have gone unreported.

While western firms are clearly the biggest winners, the contracting boom has also created a relatively lucrative business for Afghan firms. However, in some cases, contracts appear to have been awarded to former warlords now allied with NATO.

Individuals with links to President Hamid Karzai have also forged strong commercial links with the Canadian military.

For example, the military's censored documents disclose a payment of $300,000 to rent vehicles. The company's name is blanked out. However, by cross-referencing contract numbers in publicly available databases, CanWest News Service determined that a company named "Sherzai" won the contract. The company bears the same name as Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord who helped Mr. Karzai rout the Taliban from Kandahar six years ago, and who served as the province's governor until 2005. Mr. Sherzai is a former mujahedeen who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. He is now governor of Nangarhar province.

Sherzai, the company, received $1.14 million worth of contracts from the Forces between January 2006 and March of this year, almost $900,000 of that for transportation services. Another $240,000 was for services related to "defence" and "research and development." No other explanation for the work is available.

Since early 2006, the Canadian Forces has also awarded nine contracts worth more than $340,000 to an entity referred to in government records as "Gulalai" and "General Gulalai."

Gen. Gulalai was a southern Afghanistan warlord who also backed Mr. Karzai's efforts to win back the Kandahar region from the Taliban. Defence Department disclosures do not detail what Gen. Gulalai did for this money, listing only "professional services," "transportation" and "R&D."

During an October 2006 meeting of the Commons defence committee, NDP defence critic Dawn Black asked then-defence minister Gordon O'Connor to explain why the military was doing business with warlords.

"It's not unusual to have to deal with people you call former warlords. That's the way it is in Afghanistan," Mr. O'Connor replied.

As Canada and its coalition allies expand their use of contractors, they are entrusting more high-risk work to Afghans.

In Kandahar City, the demand for extra muscle has cultivated an entire neighbourhood of Afghan guards-for-hire. The "commando district" is home to hundreds of well-armed men who once filled out the militias of regional warlords. They earn about $300 U.S. a month to provide security to firms that win contracts with NATO countries, said Rohullah Khan, a former militia commander.

Mr. Khan oversees about 250 guards who protect private convoys with an arsenal of rocket launchers, AK-47s and heavy machine-guns. During the past year, 50 of his guards have been killed in battle with the Taliban, he says.

"No one," he says, "wants to do this work."

Tomorrow: War makes strange bedfellows. Tim Hortons and other businesses in Afghanistan.
 
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