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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate inquiry into private security contracting in Afghanistan concluded on Thursday that funds had sometimes been funneled to warlords who were linked to the Taliban, murder and kidnapping.
The inquiry, by the Senate Armed Service Committee, found private security forces were often poorly trained and supervised by their companies and inadequately overseen by Defense Department contract managers.
"All too often our reliance on private security contractors in Afghanistan has empowered warlords, powerbrokers operating outside Afghan government control," Democratic Senator Carl Levin said in releasing the report.
"There is significant evidence that some security contractors even worked against our coalition forces, creating the very threat they are hired to combat," he added. "These contractors threaten the security of our troops and risk the success of our mission."
Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the committee report "fills out a picture many have already suspected -- that taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan at times end up in the hands of those we are fighting."
"It is another wake-up call that the U.S. needs to take aggressive steps to get a better handle on contractors and subcontractors in Afghanistan," said Fontaine, who authored a June report on contracting.
"Getting a better handle on who is doing what, with what money and where that money is going, should be priority number one," he said.
Some 26,000 private security personnel -- a large proportion of them Afghan nationals -- were operating in Afghanistan under U.S. Defense Department contracts as of May 2010, the report said, citing figures from the U.S. Central Command's Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in August giving foreign security contractors four months to disband. The Interior Ministry said on Sunday it had moved to shut down eight firms, seizing 400 weapons.
Private security firms in Afghanistan provide guards for everything from embassies and aid agencies to supply convoys and U.S. military bases.
While providing vital services in the war-torn country, they have become a point of friction because of the involvement of some in high-profile shooting and other incidents.
The report documented one case, at the Shindand Airbase in Herat Province, where it said ArmorGroup North America was hired to provide security and used two competing warlords in the region to provide the men for the guard force.
The report said that over the course of the contract at the base, warlords and guards involved were implicated in murder, revenge attacks, bribery and anti-coalition activities. One of the warlords even hosted an August 2008 Taliban meeting that was raided by U.S. and Afghan forces, it added.
Officials at ArmorGroup's parent company, Wackenhut Services, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The report concluded that the proliferation of private security personnel in Afghanistan was inconsistent with the counterinsurgency strategy being pursued by U.S.-led NATO forces seeking to defeat the Taliban insurgency and stabilize the country.
U.S. officials have indicated it would be difficult to get rid of all security contractors quickly because of the essential role they fill.
General David Petraeus, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said last month that Karzai was prepared to allow contractors to remain at fixed bases like the Kabul electrical generating station, as well as embassies and other infrastructure sites. But the convoy escort firms would be disbanded, he said.
Editing by Peter Cooney