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Milo Minderbinder in Afghanistan: Part 1

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Remember Milo Minderbinder, a fictional character in Joseph Heller's famous novel, Catch-22? Minderbinder is a war profiteer during World War II, "perhaps the best known of all fictional profiteers" in American literature. Minderbinder was a parody of the American dream. He was also a satire of the modern businessman, and the embodiment of free market capitalism, as he has no allegiance to any country, person or principle unless it pays him. Hmm, kind of reminds you of the definition of a mercenary, doesn't it?

Anyway, while I'm the first one to say that the private military and security contracting industry is full of decent, hardworking men and women doing challenging work in frequently dangerous conditions, I also have to acknowledge that are many modern Minderbinders out there in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem with these Minderbinders is not just their pursuit of profit for their personal use. It is the fact that the privatization and outsourcing system we now have which encourages their use contributes to a toxic boomerang situation where, in a country like Afghanistan, U.S. taxpayer dollars contribute to a scandalously mismanaged U.S. development and counterinsurgency program with devastating military and social consequences. After all, why should a company care whether is actually doing something useful as long as it can bill Uncle Sam?

To better understand how this works let me introduce you to Donald A. Wissing, an award-winning journalist, who has reported widely on the war in Afghanistan for print, radio and Web. He is the author of the recently published book Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban (Prometheus Books, 2012). His writings depict an environment that would make Minderbinder proud.

The following excerpt is reprinted by permission of the publisher.

There were plenty of Department of Defense (DOD) contractors hanging around Afghanistan. By June 2009, there were more private DOD contractors in Afghanistan than military personnel. There were so many, the DOD and the GAO weren't quite sure of the total number, though they were sure they included a lot of private shooters. Though General Stanley McChrystal said private security contractors were "just not right for a country that is growing law and order," in 2010 there were over twenty-six thousand private security personnel, 90 percent under US government contracts or subcontracts, working in Afghanistan.34 American guards for U.S. security firms such as Global Risk, DynCorp, and Blackwater (formerly Xe Services, now Academi) earned up to one thousand dollars a day. Even USPI, a low-rent U.S. security firm that held Louis Berger security contracts, paid its experienced (read: ex-military) American security contractors $200,000 a year. An American working as a private security contractor earned about 1,700 times more than an Afghan guard, who probably faced more danger.

And then there were the logistics contractors. Many of them had time on their hands in Afghanistan. I knew a couple of American mechanics on FOB Salerno. I used to run into the friendly pair -- one from Louisiana, the other from Texas -- leaning on a concrete barrier near the dining hall. Their job was to maintain the MRAPs, the million-and-a-half-dollar armored vehicles Americans use to travel in mine-ridden regions. "We thought we'd be doing, you know, mechanical work," one laughed. But the military wanted to do its own maintenance. So the highly paid mechanics hung out by the dining hall. They were great boosters of their company's MRAPs, and had I been in the market for one, I surely would have bought their brand. The friendly mechanics had plenty of company. In 2009, a decorated ex-Army officer took a job with one of the American megacompanies that scarf up DOD logistics contracts. It was his second contract with the company. At a salary of $188,000 a year, he hired on to be a maintenance mentor for Afghans learning how to actually repair all the equipment the United States is dumping on Afghanistan. The ex-officer lived off-base in Kabul, the company paying big bucks for a residence and protection by some of those private security guards. But eight months after the ex-officer had arrived in Kabul to mentor Afghans, there were still no Afghans to mentor. To his credit, rather than hanging out at Latmo and Red, Hot, Sizzlin' like other underemployed contractors, he spent his time dispatching vans: "getting paid 188 grand to be a Taxi Dispatcher." He says he wasn't alone: "There were several positions over there... that the employees do not have jobs because they don't exist and they spend their time doing Arts & Crafts." After the ex-officer told his supervisor before a briefing that he wasn't going to lie to the U.S. Army "about positions that needed filled, that don't exist, thousands of positions and millions of dollars," the company fired him and seized his computer. What did the company care about his actual productivity or about all the other contractors standing around Afghanistan on the taxpayers' dime? The company was on a cost-plus contract. Lord knows how much it billed for the $188,000 taxi dispatcher.