As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, a contract dispute in Washington is interfering with the Obama administration's plan to rebuild the Afghan national police into a military force with skills to fight the Taliban.
The dispute has left the U.S. government continuing to pay millions of dollars a month to a company that primarily trains recruits as civilian police.
Last fall, administration officials shifted oversight of police training from the State Department to the Defense Department. The transition was supposed to take place by February. But the company that holds the State Department contract, DynCorp International, filed a protest.
State Department and DynCorp officials said the civilian police contract has now been extended through the end of July while the Government Accountability Office reviews the company's appeal.
DynCorp, which for years has trained police in Iraq for the State Department, received an 18-month, $317 million contract in 2008 to do the same work in Afghanistan. The program focused on law enforcement skills. But as the Taliban stepped up its attacks on recruits, U.S. military leaders pushed to include more counterinsurgency and tactical training.
Lawmakers and members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting -- an independent bipartisan panel established by Congress -- have said that an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops depends in part on the new strategy for Afghan police training.
Just last week, the State and Defense inspectors general issued a joint audit saying that the State Department program run by DynCorp does not provide the Afghan police "with the necessary skills to successfully fight the insurgency and therefore hampers the ability of [the U.S. military] to fulfill its role in the emerging national strategy."
State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said last week she could not "get into details" about the DynCorp contract because of the protest. A spokesman for the company, Douglas Ebner, said the dispute has not affected how it trains in Afghanistan. "We are working as before," he said. "We will do nothing to impede the mission."
Defense officials in Washington referred questions about the Afghan police to the command in Afghanistan. Army Lt. Col. David Hylton, a spokesman in Kabul, said in an e-mail, "The extension of the contract has not affected the rate at which Afghan police are trained to meet current and future requirements." Hylton added that the recruits have been getting more instruction from military specialists including NATO advisers.
U.S. officials envision a swift expansion of Afghan security forces. The national police numbered 96,800 at the end of last year. They will grow to 134,000 by 2011 and 160,000 by 2013, according to Defense officials. Meantime, the Afghan army is expected to number 134,000 by the end of this year and 240,000 by 2013.
The shift to military training for the police was expected to take place as more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops are deployed. Last November, the U.S. embassy welcomed the transfer of that responsibility to the Pentagon in a memorandum to the inspectors general for State and Defense.
"Expanding and improving the Afghan National Police so it can meet the many security and governance challenges...remains one of the greatest challenges facing the Afghan Government, the United States and our international partners," wrote Joseph A. Mussomeli, a top embassy official.
"Preparing for a smooth transition" for the police, he added, "has been one of the Embassy's highest priorities."
Separate from questions of military strategy, the police training programs in Iraq and Afghanistan also have faced criticism from independent auditors for gaps in supervision and weak controls over how the money is being spent.
The joint inspectors general report released last week focused on how the State Department has been managing the Afghan police-training contract. It found that State had too few contract representatives in Afghanistan to oversee the quality of the work or to track expenses and could "provide no assurance" that the government received value for its money. Contractor invoices were "inappropriately approved" and "oversight was grossly understaffed" beginning in 2005, the audit found.
A recent report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction cited similar flaws in State's oversight of DynCorp's police training in Iraq. It suggested that the entire $2.5 billion Iraqi police contract was vulnerable to waste and mismanagement.
The performance of DynCorp was not addressed in the reports. The company has said it is proud of its work.
DynCorp's protest about the change in the Afghan program was filed in December. The Defense Department had decided to replace DynCorp's program by adding police training to a contract handled by the Army's Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office. But DynCorp argued that police training fell outside the scope of that existing contract, which is supposed to develop technologies to counter drug trafficking and terrorism. Instead, an entirely new police contract should be created, the company said.
Company officials also contend that the rules written by the Defense Department for the revised training program unfairly would exclude DynCorp from bidding on the work. "We favor a full and open competition," said Ebner, the DynCorp spokesman.
A GAO spokesman said a decision on the company's appeal would be made by March 24.