Photo: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images
The skies above Kabul have been abuzz over the past week with massive cargo planes flying out equipment amid the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some are flying out of Bagram Air Base, a monster American stronghold once home to 40,000 military personnel and civilian contractors at the peak of the war here. Today, there are 3,300 U.S. troops in the entire country, who, like their NATO colleagues, are all scheduled to leave by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Yet contractors who make up America’s largest force in Afghanistan are beefing up their presence just in time to plug the vacuum that will be left behind.
“So far, nothing is changing,” said a contractor working for a U.S. company based in Bagram. News from the Pentagon has yet to trickle down. “I am not aware of any changes to my job or of any contracts being passed to the Afghan government. These are American companies and these contracts will remain under private payroll.”
“I don’t have much to share because no one has told us shit,” says another. “If there is an endgame, no one has told it to us. It’s like the Pentagon is scrambling to build some sort of ‘get out’ plan as we are walking it.”
Contractors are a force both the U.S. and Afghan governments have become reliant on, and contracts in the country are big business for the U.S. Since 2002, the Pentagon has spent $107.9 billion on contracted services in Afghanistan, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis. The Department of Defense currently employs more than 16,000 contractors in Afghanistan, of whom 6,147 are U.S. citizens — more than double the remaining U.S. troops.
General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, has said contractors will come out as the U.S. military does, but many do not work for the military to begin with — rather, for other departments and a string of private entities. For instance, both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department are retaining contractors for ongoing programs outside Kabul, despite the withdrawal. “McKenzie was talking about U.S. contractors on DoD contracts but not necessarily the other agencies or other nationalities,” says another contractor at Bagram. “There are a lot of ‘if’s and potential exceptions in that line from him.”
But as some Americans leave, others are also arriving at Bagram, which senior Afghan military officials have confirmed will be the remaining hub for contractors. In April, 70 American security and defense firms started advertising more than 100 new security and intelligence positions, some with year contracts that go beyond September 11, 2021.
One such company is Triple Canopy, which is owned by Constellis, a company that also owns Academi, the most recent iteration of Erik Prince’s notorious Blackwater private-military contractors. Triple Canopy is hiring armed guards at Bagram to provide security for remaining U.S. personnel at four sites across the country. Raytheon Technologies is posting for logistics and intelligence analyst positions in Bagram. CACI and BAE Systems both posted jobs for signals intelligence specialists for an estimated term of 12 months. SOSi posted openings for intelligence analysts for yearlong deployments, where “the work environment could require 100 percent of time spent outdoors.” PAE, Inc., who scored nearly a billion dollars’ worth of contracts with the Pentagon over four years, is hiring for a contract for the State Department. Fluor Corporation is hiring for technicians, working for both the U.S. and the private sector. Louis Berger, who built and maintains the country’s largest power plant, inside Bagram, is posting more than 20 new positions at the base.
“U.S. technical teams will continue to help Afghan forces in some sections beyond September 11, some from Bagram,” said a contractor with knowledge of the new jobs. The contractor has worked for a private agency at Bagram for 15 years and renewed his contract for three years in mid-April. Other contractors, he said, will be based outside the country “but visit from time to time,” in line with the Pentagon’s plans for “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism missions. Either way, he said, the “U.S. business portfolio in Afghanistan will continue.”
Post-withdrawal, the biggest issue will be force protection. The U.S. Embassy is most likely to house remaining CIA personnel and contractors, who could face security risks such as kidnapping. The Embassy will retain a modest military presence, as is standard, but contractors would probably rely on U.S. contractors for security. “Many international firms are likely to be leery of entrusting Afghan security forces without supplementary measures of their own,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.
Like CIA personnel, contractors can be untraceable, and by design, they exist uncounted while they support the military with logistical roles such as transportation. Some have murkier roles in the shadowy world of proxy dark ops and mercenaries. Others help operate the billion-dollars’ worth of U.S. equipment and heavy weaponry within the Afghan military: Contractors provide all of the maintenance for the Afghan Air Force’s U.S.–made Black Hawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes. The air traffic controllers at the country’s airports are international contractors, said Watkins, with no organic local labor pool of Afghans trained up for the job to draw from.
“So many contracts extend beyond the withdrawal deadline and between what U.S. officials say and what the immense needs are on the ground, something doesn’t add up and something’s got to give,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate at The Wilson Center. “Hence the likelihood that the contractor footprint will remain entrenched, to some degree.”
That demand could be filled by the billion-dollar industry of private military contractors, since they don’t count as “boots on the ground” but offer the same level and range of skills — all at a much lower political cost and with a dose of secrecy. The lines that differentiate such contractors from mercenaries are blurry: While private military contractors are considered legal, mercenaries are banned by international and U.S. laws, something which caused trouble for Prince when he was found to be training and constituting private armies in Iraq and Libya, and who had plans to privatize the war in Afghanistan.
“This is really sensitive territory, and these folks will need to carry out a very delicate dance with their activities to avoid running afoul of the law,” said Kugelman. “The administration wants to draw down and move on to other things, with any remaining security presence largely kept out of the public eye. The last thing it wants is another contractor controversy and will need to be very careful in all decisions about how to handle remaining contractors post-September.” It’s possible that some contracts could face early termination, but that could entail large penalties or legal hurdles for amending or breaking them.
Beyond maintaining the airports and bases, equipment and planes, both the military and contractors rely on a force of Afghan contractors and locals for labor, such as cooks, laundry staff, drivers, and translators — staff who will face the largest financial hit from the withdrawal. At the war’s height, it was estimated that more than 12,000 Afghans worked at Bagram. Today, about 1,700 remain. “After four years as a translator, I am worried I will be let go. All of us are worried. We saw this happen before and in what felt like a day, hundreds of us walked out of the bases for the last time,” says an Afghan contractor working at Bagram. “I was lucky, but I am not betting on keeping my job this time. I might have already seen my last paycheck. We are all preparing for the worst.”
Many U.S. contractors who have dedicated years of their lives on the ground in a war that has cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars are ready to get out. “If they offered me an early termination on my contract, I’d take it,” said a contractor at Bagram. “Fuck this place, I mean, good luck to the Afghan guys left here with the Talibs, to be honest, they deserve more, but all I can say is, they are fucked.” For those still at Bagram, the U.S. war isn’t ending with a U.S. military exit just yet, and for the newcomers about to step foot in Bagram, a new, important, and perhaps more covert mission is about to begin.
Correction, 5/13/21: A previous version of this article said Fluor Corporation is hiring armed guards and intelligence analysts for Afghanistan.