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Contractor Aids U.S. Afghan Base

October 6, 2002

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ When the going gets tough, the United States sends in the Marines. And then, increasingly, they send in guys like William Rapaglia.

Need a generator, an extension cord or a nice space heater for those cold Afghan nights? Rapaglia’s your man. And he’ll get it faster than the military can.

Rapaglia is one of the hundreds of private contractors who ship in the supplies, fix helicopters, cook the food and generally get things done at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military’s headquarters in Afghanistan. Such contractors have become a fixture in the post-Cold War military, despite the misgivings of some critics.

``They need us,″ said Rapaglia, a site supervisor for Abunda Corp., an electrical supplier from San Antonio, Texas. ``We do the things they can’t do fast enough, or don’t have the people to do.″

Doubters say the military’s increasing dependence on contractors is a recipe for corruption. They point to huge new troop support contracts given to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a branch of Dallas-based Halliburton Co., while it was under a fraud investigation that was later settled out of court. Vice President Dick Cheney formerly headed Halliburton, but denied he had any role in the contracts.

At Bagram, Kellogg, Brown & Root does the cooking for most of the troops, and will soon be taking over the laundry. Red Sea of Dubai builds fences and runs the landfill. Ecolog of Macedonia does latrine duty, pumping out portable toilets imported from Italy by another Dubai-based company.

In the aircraft hangars, civilians from Raytheon Co. work alongside Army mechanics fixing helicopters.

Contractors ``are capable of everything but war fighting,″ said Army Capt. Kevin Larkin, chief of contracting at Bagram. ``They can come in here and take every bit of logistics over, but they’re chosen just to do certain things.″

And then there are the local workers _ some 600 Afghans who pitch tents, build offices and clear debris left from two decades of war. They move around the base in crews of 10 and 20, watched over by bored-looking Army guards.

Many of the workers are former militia fighters loyal to warlords who are friendly with the U.S. military. Larkin said by hiring Afghans, the Army is promoting stability and development in Afghanistan.

But how long that will last is unclear: ``It’s a good job, but I don’t know what I’ll do after the Americans leave,″ said Abdul Hanif, 22, as he helped move tents on Saturday. ``Become a soldier again, I guess.″

Hiring Afghans offers a big savings to the military, since the Afghan laborers earn just $5 a day. They also don’t have to be housed and fed like soldiers.

The privatizing extends even to construction equipment, of which the already Army has plenty. When it needed extra bulldozers and bucket loaders to help de-mine the Bagram base, it turned to a Dubai company, Golden Relief Resources LLC, which brought them from Pakistan.

``They already had this equipment, but the cost of bringing it from the States wasn’t worth it,″ said Rajesh Dewani, the company’s local representative.

The scope of the new Kellogg, Brown & Root contracts have raised concerns among critics, who worry that the military is too eager to dump its dirty work on contractors.

The company and its parent, Halliburton, ``rack in the big bucks ... in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Guantanamo and just about everywhere else the war on terrorism is being waged,″ the New York-based World Policy Institute complained on its Web site.

The exclusive, no-bid contract given to Kellogg, Brown & Root to support Army troops is good for 10 years and has no spending ceiling, meaning it could be worth billions. The company’s new Navy contract was awarded over the objections of Congress’ General Accounting Office, which called for a new round of bidding.

Company officials ``have convinced the Army from the bottom up that they’re taking care of the troops,″ Steven Spooner, a George Washington University professor who specializes in federal contracting, told The Associated Press after the contracts were awarded. ``To the extent that they are making money hand over fist, they’re taking care of the people who have the crappiest job on the planet.″

Soon, private contractors will even take over one of U.S. troops’ most delicate roles _ protecting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said last month that the department will hire private security guards when it takes over protection of Karzai from the Defense Department as planned.

Meanwhile at Bagram, where camouflage uniforms are the norm and soldiers are required to carry their weapons everywhere, civilian contractors can’t help but stand out.

While most troops still live in dusty tents or dilapidated Soviet-era buildings, the 10 Raytheon mechanics at Bagram have a brand new wooden house, complete with hand-hewn rafters, a carpeted bedroom and a bar.

Asked if it was government-issue, mechanic Alan Hurst laughed.

``Nah, we paid some Afghans $500 to build it for us,″ he said. ``They do good work, huh?″

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