KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The Taliban has begun regularly targeting U.S. government contractors in southern Afghanistan, stepping up use of a tactic that is rattling participating firms and could undermine development projects intended to stem the insurgency, according to U.S. officials.
Within the past month, there have been at least five attacks in Helmand and Kandahar provinces against employees of U.S. Agency for International Development contractors who are running agricultural projects, building roads, maintaining power plants and working with local officials.
The USAID “implementing partners,” as they are known, employ mainly Afghans, who are overseen by foreigners. The companies’ role is becoming increasingly important as more aid money floods into southern Afghanistan as part of a dual effort to generate goodwill and bolster the Kabul government.
A suicide car bomb that exploded Thursday evening outside a compound used by Western contractors in Kandahar City was the latest and deadliest attack. The 9:30 p.m. blast killed at least four Afghan security guards and wounded 16 other people, including at least two Americans, along with South African and Nepalese employees. The compound houses USAID contractors, including Chemonics International, the Louis Berger Group and the Central Asia Development Group, according to U.S. officials.
Three buildings in the compound, which sits within five miles of the Canadian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team base, were damaged, U.S. officials said. At least one company working in Kandahar, Bethesda-based DAI, evacuated some employees to Kabul after the attack, the officials said. “The bad guys have figured it out,” one U.S. official in Kandahar said. “I’ve never seen them go after implementing partners this way. We’ve got to reevaluate now what we’re doing.”
Thursday’s attack came two days after Hosiy Sahibzada, 24, an Afghan who worked for DAI, was gunned down as she walked home from the office in Kandahar City. On Tuesday, an Afghan employee of Arlington-based International Relief & Development, was shot and killed in Helmand province’s Garmsir area. In late March, two men wearing suicide vests and carrying assault rifles scaled the wall around a USAID contractor’s office building in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, U.S. officials said. They sprayed gunfire into the office where an American and four Afghans administered an agricultural project. At the time, only an Afghan secretary was in the office. She was shot twice in the stomach but survived, U.S. officials said, and security guards killed the attackers before they could blow themselves up.
The fifth incident also occurred in late March, south of Lashkar Gah. A convoy of Chemonics employees was the target of a bomb-and-gunfire ambush in which three Afghans were killed. On Dec. 15, a DAI facility was bombed in Gardez, killing five Afghan security guards. The U.S. official said it would be foolish to think that the attacks were independent of one another. “This can’t be coincidental,” he said. “This is what they’re doing now.” A senior U.S. military official in Kandahar said the military is “looking hard at these incidents” for signs of a pattern and to figure out whether targeting contractors has become a tactic. As more U.S. troops arrive and Afghan forces improve, it was to be expected that insurgents would go after more vulnerable targets, the official said, especially “as we focus on improving governance.”
In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, residents who work with U.S. troops or civilians do so at great personal risk. But the spate of violence against USAID contractors in Afghanistan appears to represent a decision by the Taliban to undercut Afghan support for the U.S. efforts, officials said. A key facet of U.S. strategy in Helmand and Kandahar is to flood those insurgent hot spots with day-labor opportunities, farming assistance and other projects that complement the military operations. But unlike gun-toting NATO troops who live on fortified bases, the workers running those projects routinely mingle with residents, making them “the definition of a soft target,” said another U.S. official in Kandahar.
“USAID now is going to have to really start scrambling to mitigate any damage to their operations,” the official said. “You don’t want to see implementers pulling back.” On Wednesday, U.S. officials in Kandahar said they discussed whether Chemonics should move to a military base because of threats. Michelle Millard, a Chemonics spokeswoman, said the firm could not comment, citing the “fluid security situation.” Officials are also considering whether private security firms that guard USAID contractors should coordinate with U.S. military units. At the moment, “they don’t talk to each other,” a U.S. official said. A spokesman for DAI, Steven O’Connor, said: “We’re constantly evaluating and adjusting our security procedures in response to events on the ground, and that’s what we’re doing right now in Kandahar.”