Despite the signing of the Doha agreement last February that called for a full drawdown of US troops and personnel from Afghanistan by May 1, the Department of Defense issued nearly a billion dollars in contracts to 17 different companies related to work in Afghanistan past the withdrawal date. There are currently some 18,000 contractors in the country, of which 6,350 are American citizens.
With the deadline rapidly approaching and no formal decision from the White House, the future of the contracts, some of which have completion dates in 2023 and beyond, remains unclear, but the Pentagon could potentially have to pay hundreds of millions in settlements or face years of litigation if the US pulls out of the country on schedule or by the end of the year as President Joe Biden suggested is likely.
“If they have a billion dollars worth of contracts, they’re going to have a barrel full of lawsuits on their hands, unless they’re willing to settle for whatever amount the contractors can ask for,” said Dov Zakheim, the former Chief Financial Officer for the Defense Department.
Biden suggested Thursday the US would not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline but said he “can’t picture” the US having troops in Afghanistan next year.
“We are not staying for a long time,” he said at his first press conference. “We will leave. The question is when we leave.”
Biden was asked specifically about US troops in Afghanistan, but the Doha agreement, signed on February 29 of last year, also calls for the removal of “non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisers, and supporting services personnel.”
Yet their immediate future is as unclear as the outlook on a troop withdrawal.
“The general trend regarding the number of DoD contractors in Afghanistan continues to scale downward. It remains too early to speculate on whether it will continue to do so on-par with that of potential troop drawdowns as no decisions have been made regarding future force levels in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Rob Lodewick.
More contractors have been killed in Afghanistan than US troops
Since the beginning of America’s longest war, contractors have paid a higher price than service members. According to the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers, 3,814 contractors had been killed in Afghanistan as of late-2019, as opposed to approximately 2,300 troops.
At the height of the Afghanistan troop surge between 2011 and 2012, there were 99,800 US service members in the country and 117,227 contractors, according to data from the Congressional Research Service. But as the number of troops in Afghanistan declined, contractors began to vastly outnumber troops. There are now approximately 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but 18,000 contractors. Nearly half of those contractors work in base support, logistics or maintenance, while the rest fill roles in security, training, construction, and more.
They may be more critical to the stability of the country and the Afghan government than US and allied troops, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko said.
“Why? Because the Afghan government relies on these foreign contractors and trainers to function,” Sopko told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in mid-March. “Should [the withdrawal] come to pass, SIGAR and many others believe this may be more devastating to the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces – and the survival of the Afghan state as we know it – than the withdrawal of our remaining military forces.”