August 13, 2009 in Nation/World

Afghans seek accountability from security contractors

David Zucchino Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan – Mirza Mohammed Dost stood at the foot of his son’s grave, near a headstone that read: “Raheb Dost, martyred by Americans.”

His son was no insurgent, Dost said. He was walking home from prayers on the night of May 5 when he was shot and killed on a busy Kabul street by U.S. security contractors.

“The Americans must answer for my son’s death,” Dost said as a crowd of young men murmured in approval.

The shooting deaths of Raheb Dost, 24, and another Afghan civilian by four gunmen with the company once known as Blackwater have turned an entire neighborhood against the U.S. presence here.

Already enraged by the deaths of civilians in U.S. military airstrikes, Afghans are demanding accountability from security contractors who routinely block traffic and bark orders to motorists and pedestrians.

As the war escalates in Afghanistan, incidents such as the one that left Raheb Dost dead raise ghosts of the Iraq war. With more than 70,000 security contractors or guards in Afghanistan and billions of dollars at stake in lucrative government contracts, the consequences of misconduct are significant.

A June report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan found serious deficiencies among private security companies in Afghanistan in training, performance, accountability and use-of-force rules.

The report said U.S. authorities in Afghanistan have not applied “lessons learned” in Iraq after a 2007 incident in which Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Iraq revoked the company’s license and five contractors face U.S. federal manslaughter and weapons charges.

The Afghan Interior Ministry has stepped up licensing of security contractors and is demanding stricter monitoring. It wants limits on the number of contractors here, even as the Pentagon considers hiring a private security company to provide more guards for its military bases. Members of parliament, responding to complaints from constituents, have proposed legislation cracking down on contractors.

Security contractors are subject to Afghan laws, but the four contractors in the May shooting left for the U.S. before Afghan authorities could mount a case against them.

Since February, oversight of security contractors in Afghanistan has been entrusted not to Congress or the Pentagon, but to a British-owned private contractor, Aegis. The company was hired by the American government after the U.S. military said it lacked the staff and expertise to monitor security contractors. Aegis is supposed to help U.S. authorities make sure contractors are properly trained, armed and supervised.

The wartime contracting commission, set up by the U.S. in 2008, expressed concern over “limited U.S. government supervision” of private security contractors in Afghanistan. Many are unlicensed and unregulated, said Zemaray Bashary, an Interior Ministry official.

Daniel J. Callahan, a Santa Ana, Calif., lawyer representing the four contractors, said the men fired in self-defense after a car rammed one of their two SUVs, forcing it into a ditch, and a second car tried to run down two contractors.

Callahan accused Blackwater, now renamed Xe, of “trying to make them scapegoats to take the heat off Blackwater.”

Xe has said that the four men were fired for not following terms of their contract.

A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say whether the contractors are under criminal investigation in the United States. Callahan said the Justice Department has told him it is conducting an investigation.

Callahan, who called the contractors “four good Americans,” identified them as Chris Drotleff, Steve McClain, Justin Cannon and Armando Hamid.

The U.S. military employs 4,373 private security contractors, according to the wartime contracting commission. More than 4,000 are Afghans, many of them former militia fighters who help guard U.S. and coalition bases.

The State Department employs 689 security contractors, most for U.S. Embassy security. American employees traveling in certain areas are protected by Xe contractors supervised by State Department security agents.

In all, there are more than 71,000 security contractors or guards, armed and unarmed, in Afghanistan, said P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on the subject.

Mirza Dost, the dead man’s father, said he was summoned to a police station in May to meet U.S. Embassy officials and Americans who told him they represented Xe. He said the Americans apologized and agreed to pay hospital bills for his son, who was in a coma but died after 31 days in a hospital.

Dost said he does not blame all Americans, but is wary of any American contractors or U.S. forces he encounters on the street. “They need to be more careful and show more respect for Afghan people,” he said.

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