By JAKE WIENS
Armed with rockets and machine guns, a group of militants yesterday launched a sophisticated attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from a partially constructed building about half a mile away, reports the New York Times.
The attack comes just months after two separate attacks rocked Afghanistan’s capital. The first was a June attack on the famed Inter-Continental Hotel, which reportedly claimed the lives of at least 10 people. Following that attack, at least nine people were killed and dozens more were injured when Taliban militants, dressed as Afghan women, detonated car bombs at the British Council on Afghanistan’s Independence Day in late August.
Although no embassy personnel were harmed during today’s attack on the Embassy, the brazen midday assault, coupled with the previous attacks, is a reminder that security of the Embassy remains paramount.
Back in 2009, POGO wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise concerns about the State Department’s management of Armor Group North America (AGNA), the contractor responsible for guarding the Embassy in Kabul.
The letter garnered international attention largely because of the “Lord of the Flies” environment depicted in photographs and videos released by POGO. But lost in much of the coverage was the threat to the Embassy’s security posed by State’s ineffectual oversight of AGNA.
Among the security vulnerabilities documented by POGO in 2009:
• Chronic guard turnover which, according to POGO sources, may have been as “high as 100 percent annually”;
• Nearly two-thirds of the guard force could not “adequately speak English,” which raised concerns that the guards could not communicate effectively if under attack; and
• Guard shortages resulted in “14-hour-day work cycles extending for as many as eight weeks in a row”
A subsequent report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) verified and expanded upon many of POGO’s findings. The report, published in September 2010, found that “AGNA has been unable to maintain the number of guards or the quality level required by the contract.” The OIG also found that “To manage staffing shortfalls, AGNA hired and put on duty Nepalese guards without verifiable experience, training, or background investi¬gations, which violates its contract” and that AGNA “firearms instructors qualified guards who did not actually meet the minimum qualification score on the firing range.”
This July, AGNA paid $7.5 million to the U.S. government to settle a qui tam lawsuit by a former employee who alleged AGNA’s performance in 2007 and 2008 put the security of the U.S. Embassy at risk.
AGNA's parent company said the settlement was made solely “to avoid costly and disruptive litigation—and that there has been no finding or admission of liability.” The parent company, WSI, also stated, “At all times, the Embassy was secure.”
In an attempt to replace AGNA, the State Department last September selected EOD Technology (EODT) to take over security of the Embassy. But shortly following that announcement, a report by the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) documented both EODT and AGNA’s use of warlords with possible ties to the Taliban to staff their respective guard forces. A couple months later, EODT’s offices were raided by federal agents in connection with a separate investigation into “potential export violations.”
Following news of that raid, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian argued that security of the Embassy should be an inherently governmental function, carried out by government employees rather than contractors. “If there's a better argument for making this mission an inherently governmental function, this situation is it,” she said. “We've got one discredited company to be replaced by another discredited company,” she added.
Following a delay, EODT was scheduled to take over from AGNA this May, a State Department spokesperson told Mother Jones magazine. But in response to a POGO query, an AGNA spokesperson confirmed that AGNA is still responsible for Embassy security and also that the Embassy was “part of the insurgent citywide attack in Kabul today.”
There is no indication, at this point, that inadequate security contributed to yesterday’s attack. But as the Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC) recommended in its final report, the government should evaluate the risk of using private security contractors at each static-security site. And if it’s determined that the risk is too high, the security contractors should be phased out. Yesterday’s attack presents an unwelcome reminder that it may be time to reevaluate the security situation at the Embassy in Kabul.
Jake Wiens is a POGO Investigator
Video from Nato Channel.