U.S. Special Operations Forces have a brand new home in Afghanistan. It’s owned and operated by the security company formerly known as Blackwater, thanks to a no-bid deal worth $22 million.
You might think that Blackwater, now called Academi, was banished into some bureaucratic exile after its operatives in Afghanistan stole guns from U.S. weapons depots and killed Afghan civilians. Wrong. Academi’s private 10-acre compound outside Kabul, called Camp Integrity, is the new headquarters for perhaps the most important special operations unit in Afghanistan.
That would be the Special Operations Joint Task Force–Afghanistan, created on July 1 to unite and oversee the various spec-ops “tribes” throughout Afghanistan. It’s run by Army Maj. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, a former deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, and is already tasked with reforming how those elite forces train Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban. And its role is only going to grow in Afghanistan, as regular U.S. forces withdraw by 2014 and the commandos take over the residual task of fighting al-Qaida and its allies. Perhaps that’s why Academi’s no-bid contract runs through May 2015.
Academi spokeswoman Kelley Gannon declined to comment for this story. But it’s highly unusual for U.S. military forces to take up official residence on a privately owned facility. Sources familiar with the arrangement, who wouldn’t speak for the record, say that Thomas’ team is already looking to move. But Camp Integrity is already shaping up to be a crucial location for an Afghanistan war that’s rapidly changing.
Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who’s closely studied the private security industry, finds the spec ops’ private HQ unsurprising. “We’ve seen these kind of close, intertwined relationships in the field between the public and private forces before,” he says. “The U.S. military and the CIA, reportedly, have hired these companies to do everything from building bases, running the facilities and logistics, to serving as the guard forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. You get to a certain point where you wonder where the U.S. military and private military roles begin and end. But to me, the interesting question is what have we actually learned from these past experiences?” (Full disclosure: Danger Room editor Noah Shachtman works with Singer at Brookings’ 21 Century Defense Initiative.)
The uber-special ops command’s birth at Camp Integrity apparently occurred for a simple, mundane reason: overcrowding.
In March, the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees all commando units around the world, instructed a local unit in Afghanistan to prep for the creation of a new force that would encompass all American special operations forces there. The problem was, there wasn’t sufficient space at existing facilities to house the 217 additional personnel that made up the initial complement of the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. So it turned to Academi.
Through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had an existing contract with Academi for operations at Camp Integrity, the commandos awarded Academi a no-bid deal worth $6.6 million in its first year. They jointly determined that “no other vendor” could have accommodated Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan by its July 1 deadline for the command’s establishment, particularly as it needed secure office space. A deal was reached with Academi for use of Camp Integrity on May 15.
“Meeting the deadline of May 15, 2012 was vital for U.S. national security interests and organic Afghan capabilities of local security and governance,” according to an announcement of the basing deal quietly released this week — over six months after Academi began moving the command into its privately-owned home. Without explanation, the contract further states that failing to set up the new special-ops command on time could have jeopardized the U.S. troop drawdown, thereby imposing “insurmountable costs” for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan longer.
Academi’s contract for providing the “life support services” to the task force is worth $22.3 million. If all options on the contract are exercised, it will last until May 2015 — an indication that the special operators’ counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan will continue after most U.S. forces come home after 2014. Last month, Gen. Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to take over command of the war, said “counterterrorism” would be among the missions of a post-2014 force.
U.S. and Afghan negotiators recently began discussions over the scope of that residual presence, and a big factor in that debate will concern which Afghan bases will host American troops. But it’s less clear what authority U.S. diplomats and Afghan bureaucrats have over a privately-owned base like Camp Integrity, although Academi’s operations are already certified by Afghan authorities.
Academi won’t talk much about Camp Integrity. A spokesman, John Procter, told Danger Room in March that it contains a “24/7 operations center, fueling stations, vehicle maintenance facility, lodging, office and conference space and a fortified armory.” His colleague Gannon declined to elaborate for this story. According to its contract, Academi will provide everything from food to tech support to “armed security services” for the mega-spec ops command at Camp Integrity.
But the commandos won’t be the only U.S. military tenants at Camp Integrity. A Pentagon agency called the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office also uses Camp Integrity as a base of operations to aid in its war on Afghanistan’s drug lords. Academi provides the office’s small Kabul cell with, among other things, “a secure armory and weapons maintenance service.”
Academi’s old incarnation, Blackwater, had deep ties to the secretive U.S. special operations community. Founder Erik Prince was a Navy SEAL, and the firm aided the Joint Special Operations Command with counterterrorism targeting and “snatch and grab” operations in Pakistan. But while the new ownership of the rebranded Academi has previously emphasized its differences with the old Blackwater regime, some continuities are on display — like how the military’s newly expanded spy service will rely on Academi for self-defense training.
An informed source inside the special operations community says there’s already a plan in the works to move Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan out of Camp Integrity, but the source declined to elaborate. For the time being, the heart of the enduring commando mission in the U.S.’ longest war can be found at the headquarters of its most infamous private security company.