U.S. Contractor Deaths in Afghanistan Skyrocket in Last Year

Since the Obama administration has taken over the War in Afghanistan, U.S. contractor deaths there have accelerated dramatically.

Recently released Department of Labor records show that at least 521 U.S. contractors have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in October 2001. The majority, 332, have been killed in the last 12 months alone -- an increase of 175 percent over the previous year.

According to the DOL's website, this is not an official count of the number of contractor deaths. The statistics only reflect the number for which an insurance claim was filed.

Contributing to this alarming trend is the Taliban's recent increase in targeting State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development "implementing partners" -- another name for firms contracted by the U.S. government to implement development programs in Afghanistan.

The contractors play a crucial role in the Obama Administration's war strategy. After security forces clear an area of insurgents, the contractors follow with development programs aimed at improving the lives of Afghans. The idea is to draw them away from the Taliban. But without military protection, they have often become soft targets for the Taliban.

"It is a very clear tactic of the Taliban," a U.S. official told ABC News. "The intent is to drive them away."

According to the official, in some particularly dangerous locations such as Kandahar City, where the next major NATO coalition operation will take place, contractors are being given the option of locating their headquarters on a forward operating base, along with military personnel.

But without that protection, contractors in the field remain vulnerable.

Employees of Development Alternatives Inc. know the danger first-hand. Their headquarters and offices in northern Afghanistan were targeted by 2 suicide bombers on July 2nd. Two foreign contractors were killed, and two dozen other people were wounded.

In April, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said that his agency did most of its work using contracted "implementing partners" without the "significant security that a U.S. direct-hire personnel would require."

And the cost of providing that security is rising as fast as the casualty numbers.

When USAID first contracted New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group, a consulting firm, in 2001 to build infrastructure in Afghanistan, security costs were 6 to 8 percent of its overall costs, a spokesperson said. Since then, costs have risen to 20 percent in the most security-challenged areas.

But that has not inoculated the consulting firm from attack. In April, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden car at a compound in Lashkar Gah, shared by the Louis Berger Group, Chemonics International, and DAI.

"Ultimately the solution is to create a secure environment," said Ambassador John Herbst at a recent Society for International Development event in Washington. "But in the process of creating a secure environment, civilians have to take some risks -- AID officials, AID contract workers, State Department officials."

That risk has come at a large cost. All told, over 200 of Louis Berger Group's contracted employees -- American, Afghan, and other nationalities -- have been killed in action in Afghanistan, and at least that many wounded.

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