U.S. contractors pullout could devastate Afghan forces - U.S. government watchdog

WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - The departure of thousands of U.S. defense contractors from Afghanistan by May 1 - set by a deal last year with the Taliban – may be “more devastating” to Afghan forces than an American troop pullout, a U.S. government watchdog warned on Wednesday.

The assessment by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), came as the Biden administration presses the Taliban and Kabul to consider a proposed peace accord and reviews the February 2020 agreement amid surging violence.

The agreement reached by the Trump administration with the Taliban requires the departures by May 1 of all U.S. troops and non-diplomatic civilian personnel, including U.S. defense contractors.

As of October, there were more than 18,000 such contractors, including 6,000 Americans and 7,000 third-country nationals, Sopko told an online forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

Their departure “has been largely ignored” as attention focuses on whether President Joe Biden will withdraw the last 2,500 U.S. soldiers, he said.

Reviewing a new report to Congress and the administration on high risks to U.S. reconstruction efforts, Sopko said the contractors’ departure “may be more devastating to the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces than a withdrawal of our remaining troops.”

“The Afghan government relies heavily on these foreign contractors and trainers to function,” he continued, explaining that 40 percent of them maintain equipment, manage supply chains or train Afghan security personnel on advanced U.S.-supplied equipment.

For example, he said, contractors provide 100 percent of the maintenance for the Afghan air force’s Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes, and a new Pentagon assessment found that without them, “no Afghan airframe can be maintained as combat effective for more than a few months.”

A shortage of trained Afghan personnel and the departures of U.S. troops and contractors “will negatively impact Afghan security forces, threaten the Afghan state and imperil our own national security interests if Afghanistan should further destabilize,” he warned. (Reporting by Jonathan Landay)