New rules for hiring contractors in Afghanistan

September 13, 2010

The new rules come more than six months too late for Lance Corporal Josh Birchfield.

Birchfield, 24, from Westville, Indiana, was on patrol in southern Afghanistan last February when he was killed by private guards working for an Afghan contractor - guards paid by the pentagon to protect a road project.

As the I-Team first reported, they were guards who had been using opium at the time Lance Corporal Birchfield was killed.

What began as a routine night mission was Birchfield's last. It was February 19th in the Farah province. At sun-up, Birchfield and his squad were in a dry river bed.

According to military records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, after they "received small arms fire," the marines spotted an "L-N, or local national contractor, on the roof." It was at a security checkpoint where local afghan police and security contractors inspect vehicles and drivers for bombs and weapons.

The marines are not allowed to return fire in that kind of situation, knowing that they were under attack by U.S. government-paid Afghan contractors. So, according to the reports, they "activated red, white and green flares" signaling they were U.S. Marines and "the contractors ceased fire," but not before Birchfield suffered a fatal "gunshot wound the head," casualty type listed as "hostile."

General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military official in Afghanistan, quietly last week issued a counterinsurgency contracting memo to his battlefield commanders.

While not referring to any specific case, the directive notes that "insufficient oversight" when hiring private contractors will "fuel corruption; finance insurgent groups and criminal patronage."

That was what led to Birchfield's death, according to Marine witnesses, who said the contract security officers had been using opium while on duty in their guard post.

Petraeus' memo urges better vetting of vendors hired by commanders and the use of fewer subcontractors, all of which may help identify connections between contractors and criminal networks run by afghan warlords.

Emails to the I-Team from the base where Birchfield was assigned suggest those dual alliances held by private Afghan security guards probably contributed to his shooting death.

Even as the Indiana marine was laid in his final resting place, the contract guards who killed him were turned over to afghan prosecutors and are no longer in reach of American military or criminal justice.

The U.S. military could not exist in Afghanistan without the tens of thousands of private contractors, from security officers to construction crews to food purveyors.

These new procedures from General Petraeus will have to work quickly to help end the inadvertent funding of militant groups. American forces are due to begin drawing down in Afghanistan next July.

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