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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government does not know exactly how many contractors it employs in Afghanistan, a U.S. commission said on Monday, raising basic questions about oversight of wartime operations.
Contractors in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troops there and scandals involving misconduct by employees of private firms on the U.S. payroll in Afghanistan and Iraq have prompted calls by Congress for greater accountability.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan, independent commission mandated by Congress, presented data at a hearing showing major discrepancies in different accounting methods used to determine the number of U.S. contractors.
A traditional manual count by the U.S. military's Central Command turned up nearly 74,000 U.S. Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan as of June 30 -- more than twice the number shown in another survey by the Pentagon.
"I kind of want to scream.... Why if it's so important, are we failing to do something so basic?" said Christopher Shays, a former Republican lawmaker and a co-chair of the bipartisan committee.
Gary Motsek, an assistant deputy undersecretary of defense, acknowledged in testimony that U.S. efforts to create a system to better count the number of contractors in Afghanistan had so far come up short.
"We failed," Motsek said, calling for better funding and regulations to require all U.S. agencies to report figures for contractors. "You should be concerned about the gap, because we are concerned about the gap."
Motsek and Redding Hobby, deputy director of logistics, contracting, and engineering at Central Command, indicated that while the manual count system was not 100 percent precise, it was still the best gauge available.
Michael Thibault, another co-chair appointed by Democratic congressional leaders, questioned whether not knowing the number and identities of Afghan contractors on the U.S. payroll exposed U.S. personnel to greater security risks.
"It's going to take one tragedy and there's going to be a scorched-earth effort looking for accountability, and that's why it's so important," Thibault said.
Motsek, however, described the lack of a firm tally as an administrative shortcoming that did not endanger U.S. forces. He said contractors needed separate security clearance to enter U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney