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World

Afghan war costs pile pressure on contractors

Barack Obama has pledged to keep troops in Afghanistan for longer, and the total cost of the war is now over half a trillion dollars. But the US government keeps giving money to a contractor with a terrible record.

The war in Afghanistan has become absurdly expensive for the United States. Apart from the 2,223 military deaths, the cost to the US taxpayer has swollen out of comprehension: since 2002, Congress has approved $641.7 billion (471.7 billion euros) to fund the war, including some $103.2 billion in reconstruction projects.

In a recent speech, John Sopko, head of the government's independent oversight body, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), put the latter figure in context: "That is more money than we have spent on reconstruction for any one country in the history of the United States - more than we spent on Germany or the United Kingdom during the Marshall Plan," he told a conference in San Diego last week. "We are spending more money this year to rebuild Afghanistan than we will for the next THREE largest countries that receive US foreign assistance - including Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan - combined."

On top of that, another $18 billion have been appropriated but not yet spent, and probably another $6 to $10 billion are promised annually for years to come.

As the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, "This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness."

Black hole

Meanwhile, Barack Obama's administration seems to have accepted that Afghanistan won't be a stable country for a while yet, at least not without doing a deal with the Taliban and keeping nearly 10,000 troops there until next year.

Obama Überraschungsbesuch in Afghanistan 25.05.201

The US is not quite leaving yet, said Obama

Unsurprisingly, many wonder where all that US treasure has gone, and thanks to SIGAR, it has emerged that around $2.8 billion has gone to one company alone - DynCorp, a private military contractor with a string of financial fraud allegations hanging on its name - as well as one accusation of hiring an underage Afghan for entertainment.

None of these have affected DynCorp's unshakeable relationship with the US State Department, though. According to SIGAR's latest report, the Dyncorp International Limited Liability Corporation received 69 percent of the State Department's Afghanistan budget between 2002 and 2013. UK-based NGO, the Oxford Research Group, flagged up this figure in its latest Remote-Control Warfare briefing, published Tuesday (27.05.2014).

"We are very proud to be a top provider to the State Department," DynCorp spokesperson Ashley Burke told DW in an email. "The contracts cited were competitively awarded, and the company won them because of its unparalleled experience and ability to deliver results at the best value to the government."

Over-billing, poor performance, and dancing boys

But that claim appears to be undermined by the repeated allegations of overcharging. In 2007, SIGAR pointed out that DynCorp billed the government $188 million for construction work (including a swimming pool for police officers) it carried out without authorization in Iraq. "DynCorp seemed to act almost independently of its reporting officers at the Department of State," SIGAR said at the time. The company settled the ensuing court case in 2011 by handing $7.7 million back to the State Department.

US Army Lager Kunduz Afghanistan

DynCorp's work in Kunduz in 2012 has come under fire

And there is no shortage of other DynCorp scandals: in 2010, WikiLeaks published a diplomatic cable that showed DynCorp contractors hired an underage Afghan boy to entertain them.

And in 2012, another SIGAR report criticized the US Army Corps of Engineers for releasing DynCorp from its contactual obligations, "despite poor performance and structural failures" in its construction work on a garrison camp in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan.

"No doubt, this was a challenging project, but the majority of challenges stemmed from site conditions - a site that DynCorp did not select," Burke responded. "Clearly we would have preferred a different outcome on the project but the company did everything possible - including providing work at no cost to the government - to deliver in challenging and unusual circumstances."

Then most recently, it emerged earlier this month that the Department of Defense Inspector General was investigating a whistleblower's allegation that DynCorp and its client Northrop Grumman had over-billed the government for work on an anti-terrorism program - including $3.2 million for employees recorded as working more than 24 hours in a day.

"DynCorp International has cooperated with investigators throughout their inquiry into this issue, has complied fully with our obligations under the subcontract," was Burke's response to DW.

US Army Lager Kunduz Afghanistan

DynCorp said most of the problems with the Kunduz camp 'stemmed from site conditions'

Misplaced trust

The fact that these repeated allegations have not damaged DynCorp's relationship with the State Department raises a few questions, thinks Raphaël Zaffran, research associate at Open Briefing, the civil society agency commissioned by the Remote Control Project.

"I don't think it's a problem in itself that most of the money was allocated through a single actor - some of these companies are so big and are involved in so many projects - the problem is why did they continue allocating contracts to a company that had a checkered record," he told DW.

Zaffran also thinks the fact that DynCorp employs top ex-military officers might be relevant. "The SIGAR report … reveals a possible revolving door effect going on, with board-of-director-level individuals at DynCorp having served in the US army and the US Marine Corps," he said. "In times of war, there can be a tendency to expedite the bidding process and trust the actors that you know, even if they have some issues in their record."

SIGAR has a range of measures when it finds wrongdoing. "Through the audit and inspection process SIGAR can recommend that an agency take certain steps to prevent taxpayer funds from being lost," Deputy Inspector General Gene Aloise told DW. "SIGAR can also recommend that the various agencies suspend and or debar an individual or entity which would prevent them from receiving US funds."

However, SIGAR has never actually done this in DynCorp's case - which may explain why the State Department felt entitled to continue working with the company.

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