Archive for the ‘Private Security Contractors’ Category

After a crazy summer myself, I am returning to blogging to comment on some even crazier times at the Embassy in Kabul. As I am sure you have read by now, private security contractors under the employ of Armor Group were dismissed for some very juvenile behavior caught on film. Before we go further, it is important to note that there are great people–some of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting throughout my research–in the PSC community. When I see contractors depicted as mustache twirling villains such as in District 9, my first reaction is to cringe at the narrow representation of a very diverse group. This same prejudice has colored the reception of this news if not the coverage itself. However, there has been some thought provoking discussion to come from it.

The Combat Operator, for one, points to a need for greater oversight and accountability of the PSC industry:

The command structure, the rules, regulations, policies, guidelines and standing operating procedures which are normal in any military organization do not exist to any meaningful degree within the private security/military industry. At best you have a few companies who, relatively speaking, do better than most but even that’s a pretty low standard to meet.

Furthermore, the consequences for breaking rules (that is…the few rules that actually exist) is virtually non-existent. In the U.S. military the UCMJ governs service personnel and all soldiers, airmen and Marines know that failure to comply with any lawful order, law or rule or even policy or guideline runs the risk of prosecution non-judicial punishment (NJP), or court martial under the UCMJ. Again, nothing even close to this exists within the world of private security. There really is no accountability comparable to the UCMJ and NJP amounts only to dismissal from your current contract. And we all know that this is, in reality, no punishment at all since the offender often simply pop-ups somewhere else for another firm in a matter of weeks or months.

However, TCO also points to a failure of leadership at the State Department:

Now then.  That takes care of the industry side of the equation.   What about the client side?  Increasingly it is coming to light that government clients, in contrast with private clients, are systemically inept at managing the procurement, selection and oversight of security contracts.  I have personally worked on contracts which have both private clients and government clients and though neither do a very good job, the government side and in particular the U.S. State Department are painfully ill equipped to do this work.  The reasons for this are puzzling, especially as at this stage, after 8 years of war in Afghanistan and 6+ years in Iraq there are literally hundreds of senior contractors with multiple years of operational management experience who could be hired by State in to sit on the ‘client side’ of the table during contract negotiations as well as during the later phases of contract execution.

For decades the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Services (DSS) program was always a sleepy little backwater in the security world.  It was, and to some degree still is,  full of lifelong government civil servants who, despite their hard work and good intentions, have not been able to adapt to the pace and complexity that operating in a war-zone imposed on them.  They got pushed into a fast-paced and complex game that they were not prepared for.

But to date this has been like asking a local high school football coach, no matter good his record has been at that level,  to jump into the NFL.   Oh sure, on the surface there are many similarities,  the field is the same dimensions, it’s still 11 vs. 11 players  and the rules are mostly the same and certainly the concepts is the same in principle.  But the speed, level of complexity and knowledge and experience to say nothing of the media attention necessary to perform at the highest level make it impossible for him to take go from High School to the NFL without a natural maturation process which usually involves a stop for many years at the university level.

The DSS small staff of only a couple thousand agents oversees (and I am using that term lightly) over 30′000 contract personnel in the protection of over 200 Embassies and consulates around the world.  But, the problem is that your standard, run-of-the-mill, contract and mission to protect the Embassy in Berlin or even Kuala Lumpur or Mumbai  is still about three solar-systems away from what is required to protect the Kabul embassy.  Kabul and Baghdad are the big leagues and the DSS has not demonstrated anything near the capability of playing on that field.  They certainly do not have a commanding position of respect or authority over the security firms they are supposed to supervise.  At best they are perceived as an administrative nuisance which should be avoided at every opportunity.

To some degree the State Department knows they are are in over their head and they have relied, far too heavily, on the professionalism (I use that term lightly as well…) of the private security sector to pull their bacon out of the fire.  But, as I have alluded to before the professionalism they desire and frankly rely on generally just does not exist.

Free Range International offers another take on the incident and the larger problems that, as the author writes, “have little to do with the behavior highlighted in the tsunami of international coverage.” This speaks to the PSC talent pool, how much contractors are paid, and how they are treated:

Managing contracts of this size in Iraq or Afghanistan is an impossible job and there is a very small pool of talent who have the ability and energy to do it well. I came to Kabul from the American Embassy in Baghdad where I first joined the circuit with a British firm. I received a call around Midnight on a Sunday from the company recruiter who I could barely understand and he said in a very loud voice “mate do you have your kit?” I replied in the affirmative and he says “I need a fill in Baghdad mate can you leave in two days?” I again said yes and he yelled “great mate see you in 24 hours.” The next morning I had a ticket to London and I left the following day. It was a weird thing to do but I hated being retired and was a really crappy civilian. I was lucky, the project manager in Baghdad, who would come to back fill me in Kabul two years later was one of the best I have ever seen. He was from Zimbabwe, had extensive combat experience, was of the quiet confident type who paid keen attention to what his expats did both on and off duty.

Camp Happy on the day we assumed the duty at the US Embassy – this dump housed over 300 Expats and TCN’s and it sucked. The upside to being in a real shit sandwich like this was that everyone had to respect the need for off shift personnel to sleep so everyone was excessively considerate. We had to pull one 24 hour shift in order to allow our night shift to sleep – the roof was still being attached and the rooms built so they were never able to get any sleep off shift for the first two weeks of the contract.


The main reason why managing these contracts is so difficult is that it is impossible to stay ahead of the stupidity curve your men will generate. There is no way to anticipate it because some of these guys do the most unbelievably stupid things sober; add alcohol and the potential for Darwin Award level stupidity goes up exponentially. In the military I knew my Marines well because we spent so much time together – often in prolonged field exercises. Your average young enlisted Marine has the ability to do stupid things too but they fall into an easily anticipated set of behaviors which savvy leadership can recognize and at times circumvent. Not true with contractors – some of stories I have heard are amazing.


When Armor Group won they were heading down the same path as MVM but at the last minute the CEO came in, immediately fired his management team and entered into negotiations with the existing project manager for him and his crew to come aboard. I am hesitant to go into detail due to an acute congenital fear of lawyers. Runs in my family according to my Father, but suffice it say the pay for new joins was low and did not favor Americans who cannot be paid on leave by an American company without becoming an employee with the full benefit and tax load. That lasted a little less than a year until the PM got bored and left which caused the immediate exodus of all the old guards who Armor group wanted to be rid of so they could bring in guys at a much reduced daily rate. You get what you pay for in this industry and Armor Group was not paying much.

The pay thing is a problem which can worked through with good on the ground leadership and incentives for people who are on their second, third or fourth year of the contract; the real problem is with the living conditions and job requirements of the guard force. The average living space per man in Camp Sullivan is less than the square footage required for inmates in federal penitentiaries. I put that in writing in a memo to the RSO when the camp was being built which may help explain the stained relationship I had with him. The recreation facilities are inadequate and the gym full of third rate Turkish equipment. There is no space on the camp for the men to do anything outside of their crammed barracks and they have little ability to get off camp. When you are designing camps to house hundreds of guards for years at a time you have to pay attention to their morale recreation and welfare needs which is something the military excels at. If you do not think through what they are going to do off duty as thoroughly as their on duty tasks than you are set up to fail.

Personally, what I find most disturbing is that part of this failure can be traced to that prejudice I mentioned earlier:

But that contract will still be have a ton of problems and the men working there will continue to be even more miserable than the FOB bound military who at least have good gyms, pizza hut, lots of girls on their bases, green beans coffee houses etc..

There is only way to fix the Embassy contract and that is to cut the number of guards in half, make them all Americans and pull them into the embassy where they can work and live along side the other Americans. The security guards are not now and never have been able to use the gyms or bars or tennis courts or swimming pool which are all reserved for embassy staff. That should change. The security guard contract should also be combined with the Ambassadors PSD contract (currently Blackwater and before them DynCorp) so that guards joining the contract can work their way up onto the Ambassador’s detail – that way when a new guy joins that team he has a clue about Afghanistan. Knowing how to “evasive drive” or shoot is useless here – knowing the people, how they drive and what is normal behavior is critical and you can’t learn that in security “operator” school. What are the chances that the State Department is aware enough to recognize the problems they created on this contract and then really fix them? Absolutely zero. Like I said I hated working that contract because the people you are serving are just plain rude, arrogant and worse yet completely clueless about what is happening outside the walls of their plush digs.

At the very least, this compartmentalization speaks to a condescension towards those who provide security for embassies. More importantly, this prejudice creates blinders that inhibit real solutions on the ground.


Read Full Post »