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

Over past year, U.S. contractor deaths in Afghanistan soar.

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2010— -- 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.

What's more, attacks targeting contractors are becoming more sophisticated, from donkey-borne IED attacks to suicide bombers combined with gunmen. The targets include American and Afghan civilians alike.

Case in point: USAID contracted International Relief and Development, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Virginia, to run the Agricultural Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture (AVIPA) Plus program in southern Afghanistan. The $360 million contract provides job opportunities for local Afghans. All but 50 of the 1,350 full-time staff members are Afghan nationals. Putting an Afghan face on local projects is what the State Department calls its "Afghan First" approach to aid.

Yet along with its success, IRD employees have become Taliban-targets. In March, two suicide bombers dressed in burqas attempted to enter IRD's compound in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. The male suicide bombers, wearing explosive-packed vests, engaged in a gun battle with security guards at the front gate. The bombers were killed, but an IRD-hired security guard was wounded and a female Afghan IRD employee who was shot twice in the stomach.

"We have had a number of security incidents. But so far, we're hanging in there. We haven't lost anybody -- knock on wood always," IRD Director of Community Stabilization Dick Owens said in an interview with ABC News. "If you're going to successfully carry out your mission, these are the kinds of bumps on the road that you're going to face, and the kinds of things you're going to have to deal with. You can't put your head in the sand, and as an organization, we understand that."

Security Dilemma for Contractors

Unlike most U.S. officials in Afghanistan who remain in the heavily-guarded capital of Kabul, contractors who are deployed across Afghanistan, rely primarily on private security subcontractors for protection.

"The AID and State Department people in Afghanistan for the most part are inside security bubbles...It's only recently that you've seen an influx of U.S. government officials down at the district level who are out there," said Owens. And that's where the danger is greater.

The dilemma faced by the contractors reflects the larger challenge facing U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

"Development without security is not going to happen," said Herbst. "It's also true that once you create security, you have to have some development. So it's a somewhat synergistical relationship, or dialectical relationship. But there's no clear paradigm."

ABC News' Nicholas Schifrin contributed to this report.