The US State Department is set to investigate allegations of a breakdown in discipline among privately-contracted guards at the American embassy in Afghanistan that created a "Lord of the Flies" environment of humiliation and coercion.
The working culture featured lurid locker room-style hazing, semi-naked, vodka-fuelled parties and the humiliation or even firing of those who refused to join in. A charitable government oversight group described the alleged violations in a report delivered to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The Project on Government Oversight also handed over emails, videos, photographs and other testimony from other guards.
The State Department recently renewed a contract with the private security firm ArmorGroup to supply guards for the embassy, even though a congressional sub-committee voiced concerns of its own about the arrangement two months ago. That report noted that some of the guards spoke so little English they communicated in mime.
The new report seems more troubling. One witness is quoted as having seen guards "peeing on people" and drinking "vodka shots out of ass cracks". It says also that Afghan guards have been forced into humiliating acts at odds with their Muslim beliefs.
Mrs Clinton has "zero tolerance" for the kind of behaviour described in the report, a State Department official in Washington insisted yesterday, and had ordered a "review of the whole system". The official added: "These are very serious allegations and we are treating them that way."
Emails from guards include descriptions of understaffing, sleep deprivation and "threats and intimidation". One guard speaks of colleagues and supervisors as "sexual predators, deviants running rampant".
The revelations sparked a rash of 'Guards Gone Wild' headlines across the US media yesterday. They come at a time when the US government is already under scrutiny for the extent to which it relies on private firms to provide security overseas. Most famous among those companies is Xe Services, formerly Blackwater, which is now banned from Iraq by its government.
Critics claim that sub-contracting tasks to private firms muddies the accountability chain. A separate study by the Congressional Research Service this week noted that private contractors now account for 57 per cent of all Pentagon personnel in Afghanistan, the highest percentage ever seen.
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