Departure of U.S. Contractors Poses Myriad Problems for Afghan Military

These issues, fundamental to the survival of the Afghan national security forces once the U.S. military withdraws, are still being hashed out. That they are still being addressed even as the last U.S. troops are preparing to leave speaks to the years of disconnect between the Pentagon and a succession of presidents, all of whom, at one point or another, sought a more reduced American presence in the country than officials in the military and the Defense Department.

How to deal with the contractors is just one of a number of pressing problems created by the rapid withdrawal of American troops. The C.I.A. is struggling to ensure that it can gather intelligence about potential threats from Afghanistan once the U.S. military presence ends.

The Pentagon is still weighing how it will strike terrorist groups like Al Qaeda from afar once it no longer has troops or warplanes in Afghanistan. And the administration has yet to strike deals to position troops in any nearby nations for counterterrorism operations.

The Afghan government has always relied heavily on foreign contractors and trainers. As of this spring, there were over 18,000 Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan, including 6,000 Americans, 5,000 Afghans and 7,000 from other countries, 40 percent of whom are responsible for logistics, maintenance or training tasks, according to John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

The Afghan security forces rely on these contractors to maintain their equipment, manage supply chains and train their military and police to operate the advanced equipment that the United States has bought for them.

For instance, Mr. Sopko spoke of the challenges the Afghans were facing with maintenance work during a virtual forum this year. As of December, he said, the Afghan National Army was completing just under 20 percent of its own maintenance work orders, well below the goal of 80 percent that had been set, and the 51 percent that they completed in 2018. The Afghan National Police carried out only 12 percent of its own maintenance work against a target of 35 percent.

Since 2010, the Defense Department has appropriated over $8.5 billion to develop a capable and sustainable Afghan Air Force and its special mission wing, but American policymakers and commanders have always known that both would need continued, expensive logistics support from contractors for aircraft maintenance and maintainer training, the inspector general’s office concluded in a report in February.

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