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Why Oversight Matters: The Consequences of Hiring Criminals and Insurgents to Guard US Bases

A Senate Armed Services Committee report released Friday found that many Afghans subcontracted to guard U.S. bases have links to the Taliban or criminal networks. Many of these individuals are accused of serious abuses against civilians, including murder, robbery, kidnapping, and bribery. Lack of oversight in the hiring and conduct of these guards has serious consequences not only for troop and base security, but also for key elements of the current international strategy.

For the last year, the Afghanistan war strategy has tried to deprive insurgents of the support of the Afghan population by addressing key grievances -- including corruption and civilian casualties. International forces have restricted tactics leading to civilian deaths, provided greater transparency and rights protection for detainees, tried to reduce corruption through their Afghan partnerships, and revamped the operational culture to be more sensitive to Afghan concerns.

Despite this progress, the conduct and accountability of those international forces work with -- like those noted in the Senate Armed Services Committee report -- has remained poor. This misses the core of Afghan complaints. Afghans who are angry about civilian casualties caused by international forces are not just concerned about airstrikes or night-time kill-and-capture raids. They are also upset about harm caused when international forces or intelligence units subcontract security responsibilities to local actors without sufficient oversight and accountability for their actions.

My organization, the Open Society Foundations, recently released a report examining Afghan attitudes toward warring parties. Most Afghans we spoke to blamed international forces equally, or even more, than insurgents for civilian casualties and other abuses, and for the continued escalation of the conflict. Many suspected international forces of directly or indirectly aiding insurgents or other criminal groups.

Given the findings of the Senate Armed Services Committee report, it is not hard to see why. When U.S.-employed base guards commit extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, or other harassment of the local population with no consequences, the local community holds the U.S. responsible. As one man I interviewed from Kandahar alleged, "The international troops are the source of illegal activities. Narcotics smuggling, bombing, suicide attacks, everything goes back to international military forces. They are also instigating fighting between tribes."

The negative perceptions that develop from this guilt-by-association have far-reaching consequences for U.S. policies in Afghanistan. Local communities surrounding military bases have likely long known about the activities documented by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Resentment and anger at international forces -- that they allowed such behavior to take place and then allowed it to continue -- undermines progress on winning "hearts and minds" or persuading these communities to support the Afghan government and the international coalition's efforts. It has also likely sandbagged other efforts toward building rule of law, anti-corruption and good governance in these communities, which would appear to be directly contradicted by U.S. support for criminal actors and warlords who are never held accountable for their crimes. In Afghanistan, like anywhere else, actions speak louder than words.

Further, the fact that international forces keep promising more security and stability, but then support members of the Taliban or other criminal militias (whether knowingly or not) makes Afghans doubt their motives in Afghanistan. A woman from southeastern Khost province told me, "In my opinion, the American forces themselves want to create insurgency for their own interest. Because, if there is peace in the country, then the people will tell them that there is no need for the international forces to stay in the country. That is why they have let the insurgency increase."

Such statements are exaggerated, likely influenced by propaganda and inherent mistrust of foreigners. But, these statements also contain an important grain of truth, and a warning for continued engagement in Afghanistan.

The Senate Armed Services committee recommended stronger accountability: "We need to shut off the spigot of U.S. dollars flowing into the pockets of warlords and powerbrokers who act contrary to our interests and contribute to the corruption that weakens the support of the Afghan people for their government."

Calls for greater accountability on the part of US forces, intelligence actors, and their Afghan counterparts, have often been treated as a second-order priority by military and civilian officials. But the perceived impunity of these actors are central to Afghan suspicions about international engagement in Afghanistan. Addressing these concerns is critical for the current policies in Afghanistan to succeed.