August 14, 2016 09:07 PM EDT
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Surrounded by increasing violence and instability, U.S. contractors left behind in Afghanistan are raising alarm about the potential for another Benghazi tragedy, saying the State Department isn’t sharing with them a plan to evacuate if insurgents launch a debilitating attack.
The concerns are heightened by the fact that many of those civilians doing the security and nation-building work of the U.S. government hold sensitive security clearances, making them an attractive target for the enemy.
And the situation could become even more precarious after the U.S. military in Afghanistan draws down to just 8,400 troops by year’s end.
“It’s not just a political nightmare for somebody, it’s people’s lives at stake,” said Kevin Ofchus, head of Georgia-based firm Host Nations Perspectives Southwest Asia (HNPSWA) that has security contracts in Afghanistan.
The current situation
“The State Department says there’s a lack of infrastructure to support an emergency response after we’ve spent 15 years and billions of dollars on infrastructure,” he added.
Ofchus’s company is a member of the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Committee, and it chairs the Crisis Management Advisory Subcommittee in Kabul, which advises companies about security working in hot-zones.
And his sentiments are widely shared by a dozen other federal contractors in theater interviewed by Circa, some of whom would only talk on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal from Washington.
Several said they are resigned to fight their own way out of a crisis, just like the real-life Benghazi contractors portrayed in the movie “13 Hours”.
I don’t think any of us count on State Department to have their shit together. I’ve never seen, heard or prepared for any evacuation plan.
“I was told ‘don’t bother going to Kabul, grab your weapon and fight your way through until you can reach an aircraft’ or whatever,” said one contractor working in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
So is there a plan?
State Department officials told Circa that there is an evacuation plan, but they could not release any details about it because it was classified.
Mike Warren, a security director for the USAID-backed Mining Investment and Development for Afghanistan Sustainability Project, known as MIDAS, says he believes State has a very remedial plan but it fails on almost every security protocol.
“The Department of State, in close coordination with the Department of Defense, has a crisis response plan for Afghanistan that encompasses civilians and contractors. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, maintains a classified Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations plan to support the chief of mission,” the department wrote in an email.
I know the U.S. Embassy was working on a plan, but it’s a shell of what they need.Mike Warren, security director for MIDAS
“I know the U.S. Embassy was working on a plan, but it’s a shell of what they need,” Warren said in a phone interview from Kabul. “There appears to be a lack of coordinated effort between the U.S. Embassy and the American companies and personnel here in Afghanistan.”
Circa obtained a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the State Department and Department of Defense governing the protection and evacuation of U.S. citizens and nationals from threatened areas overseas. The document specifically outlines the duties and requirements of the various agencies.
The Secretary of State “will prepare the plans for the protection and evacuation of all U.S. citizens and nationals and designated other persons abroad, including the Department of Defense (non-combatants).”
It stipulates that the agency is responsible for the welfare and protection, must have a designated safe-zone for evacuation if possible and “coordination to maximize timely use of available military transportation assets and existing host nation support infrastructure.”
It’s going to make Saigon ’75 look like child’s play if we don’t have a plan in place.Edward McCallum, U.S. contractor
U.S. contractors in Afghanistan says no such formal plan has ever been shared with them. Edward McCallum, a U.S. contractor and a retired Special Forces operator whose work takes him often to Afghanistan, said if the Taliban launched a massive attack on Kabul “it’s going to make Saigon ’75 look like child’s play, if we don’t have a plan in place.”
Conditions continue to deteriorate
More than 1,600 contractors have been killed since the U.S. war began in Afghanistan in late 2001. And insurgent attacks on U.S. facilities, contractors, and Afghan security forces have been escalating over the past year.
Here’s one example: In May 2012, employees with Ofchus’ company fought off a multi-pronged suicide attack by Taliban insurgents at a compound on the outskirts of Kabul used by foreign contractors.
His security forces, made up of retired American Special Forces operators, fought the Taliban for more than three hours and kept the insurgents from entering the compound and seizing equipment and people.
It took hours before any help made it to the compound, he said.
On June 22, the State Department updated its Afghanistan travel warning, declaring that “the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. U.S. citizens are encouraged to defer non-essential travel within Afghanistan and note that evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and other security concerns.”
State Department officials referred Circa to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, known as STEP, that “enables all registered Americans to receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in Afghanistan and also helps the U.S. Embassy contact them in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or other crisis.”
Ofchus said that the STEP program “does not fulfill the requirements of the MOU (Memorandum of Agreement) nor does it address the Benghazi scenario,” in which, three contractors and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed in a stand-off that lasted 13-hours. The families of the victims and some employees of the State Department criticized the agency for lack of security and planning.
“The travel warning on the website is not solved by the STEP program,” Ofchus said.
James Pitchford is a retired Navy Reserve commander and founder of Pinchas Ltd., a national security consulting firm in Washington.
He told Circa warnings of the dire situation have been ignored.
US officials risk Benghazi 2.0 by not preparing a Non-Combatant Evacuation Order plan.James Pitchford, former Navy Reserve commander
“U.S. officials risk Benghazi 2.0 by not preparing a Non-Combatant Evacuation Order plan,” Pitchfork said, adding that “U.S. Embassy officials are telling anyone who will listen that in the event of a crisis the plan is to lock down the U.S. Embassy compound.”
“This means that any Americans not already in place at a US military site, such as Bagram, or on the U.S. Embassy compound will have to fare for themselves and will be at the mercy of insurgents who will be seeking any Americans they can find,” he added.
Pitchford, who also served as a senior aide in the Senate for nine years, overseeing the military and national security, said U.S. armored vehicles, weapons and other gear could be used against the people of Afghanistan, “if it falls into the hands of insurgents.”
The contradiction, say contractors working in the region, is that the U.S. and Afghanistan government continue to push for more stability and security programs in the country, which require more trainers and other foreign employees.
Many of these workers conduct business outside more secured areas in Kabul, like the U.S. Embassy and established military bases, like Bagram Air Field, they said.
The history and what’s next
In February, 1998, then President Bill Clinton, amended Presidential Executive Order 12656, which requires the State Department to have a prepared plan of action.
The Clinton amendment went further, saying State Department and Defense Department must “be responsible for the deployment and use of military forces for the protection of United States citizens and nationals in support of their evacuation from threatened areas overseas.”
In Benghazi, Libya the situation quickly deteriorated on Sept. 11, 2012 when the CIA Annex and consulate was attacked by the al-Qaeda arm known as Ansar Al-Sharia.
In 2014, when the State Department had to evacuate in Tripoli the Office of Inspector General concluded the embassy “did not adequately prepare for or execute all aspects of its July 2014 evacuation.”
Ofchus said he has presented plans and briefed OSAC and government officials in the past six months several times.
Any plan they have is 100 percent reactive.Kevin Ofchus
“Department of Defense and Department of State own it, and if anything happens it will be up to them but no one could provide a copy or any set information on a plan, and any plan they have is one-hundred percent reactive,” Ofchus said.
The State Department was chastised in 2013 by its Inspector General for lacking a stringent plan to evacuate the U.S. Embassy and secure classified documents. The Inspector General warned that failure to secure U.S. compounds throughout the region placed “unnecessary risk to staff” and “classified documents” were at risk of being confiscated by the enemy.
The Inspector General launched the investigation after an eight-hour Taliban attack on the embassy in September, 2013.
Afghanistan is demonstrably unstable. It isn’t a matter of if, only a matter of when.
Ofchus warned the current crisis “is a bad, bad recipe but we have a solution to address the problem and the Executive order.”
Follow Sara A. Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC.