National Security

Tribal Warfare

Why did the Pentagon award a $7 million Afghanistan security contract to this group of Native Americans in Oklahoma?

The Muscogee Nation, part of the Creek Indian tribe, which fought with Confederate troops against the U.S. military during the Civil War, is now guarding Americans stationed at U.S. bases in Herat and Helmand, Afghanistan, under a $7 million Pentagon contract. The Muscogee Nation Business Enterprise (MBNE) is a 100-person firm that has in the past used its status as a tribal-owned company to win government business, some of which it then subcontracted to a larger security company, but it says that its employees are fulfilling this contract, providing security in a war zone.

Neither MBNE nor the Pentagon would provide specifics about the deal, citing security concerns. But, according to the contract announcement, made August 9, MBNE is "to provide life support services to the Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan. These services will include basic necessities, complex security, and personnel security details for safe travel in the immediate region around the Herat and Helmand facilities."

The task force is a U.S. military organization charged with building up Afghan industries, particularly mining, agribusiness, and IT in order to "help Afghanistan achieve economic sovereignty," according to a Pentagon website.

Given its small size, at first glance the notion that MBNE is protecting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan -- a business dominated by large private security firms -- seems implausible. Experts contacted about the contract initially speculated that MBNE might be a so-called pass-through firm.

Pass-through companies are often tiny but politically well-connected Native American-owned businesses that bid for government deals reserved for small, tribal-owned businesses. These firms, usually consisting of a handful of people, then subcontract much or most of the actual work out to a large organization. A small tribal-owned company gets some government business, and the big contractors get a slice of the action.

And, indeed, MNBE used to subcontract at least some of its government-security business in Afghanistan to the Maryland-based Ronco, a private security firm "wholly owned" by G4S, previously known as Wackenhut. G4S, which claims to be largest private security firm in the world, ran security at the London Olympics and guards a range of U.S. government facilities -- from national park sites to sensitive nuclear research facilities, such as the Nevada Test Site.

What's more, MNBE, which is based in Okmulgee, Okla., explicitly describes itself as a small, tribal-owned business that specializes in helping larger companies win federal contracts by partnering with them to take advantage of federal laws designed to funnel government contracts to Native American-owned companies.

"MNBE has developed business skills necessary to compete and perform in the market place and have [sic] developed a network of potential teaming partners for various customer requirements," reads its website. "Not only are you getting a company with a proven track record but regulations allowing the customer flexibility and efficiency in meeting their particular requirements. Tribal owned 8(a) firms, such as, MNBE are eligible to receive sole source direct award 8(a) contracts regardless of dollar size, while all other 8(a) firms may not receive sole source contracts in excess of $3 million for services and $5 million for manufacturing."

8(a) is a U.S. government program that gives preferential treatment, financial assistance, and mentorship to businesses owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals."

In the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security and a number of Alaskan native-owned companies got in hot water in part because the Alaska companies outsourced more than 50 percent of the actual work to a large firm, a violation of federal contracting rules.

However, according to MNBE's CEO, Woody Anderson, the small firm owned by the Muscogee Nation Indian tribe is indeed protecting U.S. military projects in Afghanistan. "The people that we have in this contract here are our employees; they're not Ronco employees," Anderson told FP during a Sept. 21 telephone interview.

While the actual bodyguards working for MNBE aren't members of the Muscogee tribe, some of the technicians who install cameras and other security gear in Afghanistan are, according to Anderson, who says that, of MBNE's hundred-plus employees, about a dozen are tribe members.

For the last two years, MBNE partnered with Ronco to provide security to the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Sustainability Operations in Afghanistan, learning what it takes to run a private security outfit in a war zone and recruiting former military commandos to staff its security teams.

"The 8(a) program was an opportunity to get our foot in the door," said Anderson; now, MBNE is striking out on its own.

"I've got a guy named Mike Brown who is our Afghan operations guy, and Mike's retired Army, and we have gotten most of these folks through his contacts and other folks over there, because a lot of these guys are former military folks," said Anderson. "We've also recently hired some folks from Ronco" as that company has drawn down its operations in Afghanistan.

Building on the Afghanistan contract, MNBE has sent representatives to security industry expos in Dubai and is preparing to attend a similar expo in Ethiopia, hoping to gin up similar contracts to the one in Afghanistan. "Where some of the same things that we've been doing [in Afghanistan], they're going to be looking at some of those same opportunities in" the Middle East and Africa, said Anderson.

When asked about the information on its website describing the company's specialty as partnering with other companies to bid on contracts reserved for tribal owned businesses, Anderson, citing security, says that information is deliberately out of date. In fact, he said, MNBE is no longer participating in the 8(a) small business program.

"I really do some of that for security reasons. We've been very fortunate, we've not had any adverse things happen over there since we've been doing that.... I don't like to advertise that because I don't want people [looking at the website] to know where our people are, because they're traveling back and forth all the time."

STR/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Smart Sanctions

Actually, Obama's Iran policy is working great.

Critics of U.S. policy toward Iran have long claimed that Iran's nuclear progress remains unimpeded, while the United States continues "fruitless" negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

Diplomacy with Iran may not be the silver bullet that many would wish for, but the critics have it wrong. The U.S.-led sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic, along with deft U.S. handling of the Arab uprisings, has put Iran's leaders into a corner.

Not until the Obama administration had Iran faced sanctions with serious bite. The administration has managed to build a wide and deep international coalition against Iran: The European Union has ceased imports of Iranian oil, while major Asian economies such as Japan, India, and South Korea, have substantially reduced their purchases. Iran is now largely shut out of the global financial system. Even Russia and China have moved away from their longtime partner: Russia has cancelled important weapons contracts, and China has backed out of major oil and gas projects with Iran. These developments had had a major impact on both Iran's economy, and potentially its nuclear decision-making.

The success in building this coalition is due in large part to U.S. diplomacy. The Obama administration has been able to convince much of the world that a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a U.S. or Israeli problem, but one that endangers international security. In addition, America's willingness to pursue engagement with Iran, despite persistent obstacles, has enhanced its leverage. It is the Iranian regime, not the United States, that increasingly appears as more the intransigent party in the eyes of the world.

So far sanctions have reduced Iran's oil exports by as much as 40 percent. Iran's currency, the rial, has depreciated sharply, raising the price of everyday goods. Yes, Iran's economic woes have not resulted in the cessation of the nuclear program -- in fact, the regime has installed additional centrifuges in its heavily protected Fordo facility, near the holy city of Qom. But for Iran's leadership, the price of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is steadily rising.

Public dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime is at an all-time high. Iran's rulers, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are still reeling from the 2009 uprising that followed the contested presidential election. In addition, political divisions within the regime highlighted by the 2009 uprising have intensified, apparently due to U.S. policies. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has warned the regime not to ignore sanctions, and emphasized the U.S. ability to inflict still greater pressure on the Islamic Republic. Abdullah Nouri, a former government minister, prominent reformist, and potential presidential candidate, has said that sanctions are a "trap" Iran has fallen into and called for a national referendum on the nuclear program -- directly contradicting Khamenei's call for "national unity" on the issue. These divisions could serve as an important backdrop to the upcoming presidential election scheduled for June 2013.

The Islamic Republic has also lost influence in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings. Much of this is due to Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad's brutal response to the Syrian uprising. However, U.S. support for democracy in the Middle East has also played a part.

The removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power has led to a more independent and assertive foreign policy in Cairo. Not all Egyptian policies shaped by the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood will suit U.S. interests in the region. But a more autonomous Egyptian foreign policy can serve as a better counterweight to Iranian influence in the Arab world than Mubarak's often lackluster opposition to Iranian ambitions. This was on prominent display during President Mohamed Morsi's Aug. 30 visit to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit -- the first by an Egyptian head of state since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In his speech, Morsi explicitly denounced the Assad regime, embarrassing his Iranian hosts and punching a hole in their claims of Islamic unity.

Iran's "axis of resistance" against Israel is slowly crumbling, and not just in Damascus. The Palestinian group Hamas has distanced itself from Tehran, and Iran's major partner in the region, Hezbollah, finds itself increasingly isolated from the Arab world.

America's diplomatic arsenal has included promoting democracy in Iran. The Obama administration supported the establishment of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran and has increasingly highlighted the regime's human rights abuses. In addition, the United States has helped Iranians beat government restrictions on the Internet by easing restrictions on technology exports to Iranian dissidents. Social media is a major tool for communication in Iran and could be used to organize and solidify future opposition to the Islamic Republic.

Granted, the Iranian regime has not made any major concessions on the nuclear program -- yet. But the regime's power and influence, and its ability to challenge U.S. interests in the region, have been deeply degraded by U.S. policies. Iran's continued progress on the nuclear program cannot make up for lost influence. And ultimately it is the regime itself that is the fundamental problem, and not merely the nuclear program.

Critics may portray the Obama administration as "soft" on Iran. But the Islamic Republic has not felt such intense pressure, and so many setbacks, since the early days of the revolution. Previous U.S. administrations were not able to create such a large coalition to pressure Iran. Indeed, Iran's political elite increasingly speak of a national crisis greater than any since the Iran-Iraq War, which raged from 1980 to 1988.

There is, however, one surefire way to reverse all this progress: An Israeli military attack against Iran would set U.S. diplomatic accomplishments back to square one. The international coalition against Iran could fall apart, many Iranians would rally around the flag, and Iran's isolation in the Arab could lessen.

The Iranian regime may indeed have fallen into a "trap," and the continuation of current U.S. policies could seal the escape routes. Obama's critics are wrong: The White House's efforts have made important strides in preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Given the economic toll, the Iranian regime is less likely to weaponize its program, especially as it would further alienate it from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic is becoming weaker at home and abroad. Khamenei's regime may not be able to continue on its current path for much longer.

EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AFP/Getty Images