Blackwater in bidding for key Afghan contract

Firm faces legal woes, opposition from Democrats

By Richard Lardner
Associated Press / January 10, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Blackwater Worldwide’s legal woes haven’t dimmed the company’s prospects in Afghanistan, where it is a contender for an important role in the US strategy for stabilizing the country.

Now called Xe Services LLC, the company is in the running for a Pentagon contract potentially worth $1 billion to train Afghanistan’s troubled national police force. Xe has been shifting to training, aviation, and logistics work after its security guards were accused of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

Yet even with a new name and focus, the expanded role would seem an unlikely one for Xe because Democrats have held such a negative opinion of the company after the Iraqi deaths.

During the White House campaign, then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, now secretary of state, backed legislation to ban Blackwater and other private security contractors from Iraq.

Xe eventually lost its license to operate as guardian of US diplomats in Iraq. Clinton’s State Department decided not to rehire the company when the contract expired in 2009. But delays in getting a new company in place led to its extension.

A federal judge on New Year’s Eve dismissed criminal charges against five of the Blackwater guards, citing repeated missteps by federal prosecutors. The Iraqi government has promised to pursue the case, a new strain on US-Iraqi relations.

Xe on Wednesday settled a series of lawsuits in which dozens of Iraqis accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed civilians to be killed. On Thursday, however, two former Blackwater contractors were arrested on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans after a traffic accident last year.

The United States relies heavily on Xe for support in Afghanistan, and the company’s workload there may grow significantly.

Xe spokesman Mark Corallo declined to comment on whether the company is bidding for a contract to train Afghan police. But a US official knowledgeable of the deliberations said Xe is competing. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information about the federal contracting process.

As of November, Xe had more than 200 security personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, according to documents highlighting Xe’s operations.

In 2009 alone, Xe projected total revenue at $669 million, the documents state, and three-quarters of the total stems from federal contracts to support US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Afghan national police training contract is expected to be awarded soon; Xe is among five companies eligible to compete.

Obama is ramping up efforts to expand and improve the Afghan Army and national police into a force able to handle the security burden so US troops can begin withdrawing in July next year. The private sector’s help is needed because the United States doesn’t have a deep enough pool of trainers and mentors with law enforcement experience.

Xe already trains the Afghan border police and drug interdiction units in volatile southern Afghanistan.

The top military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, wants to build the Afghan national police to a force of 160,000 by 2013 - up from the roughly 94,000 now.