Commentary

Contractors in War Zones: Not Exactly “Contracting”

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in TIME on October 9, 2012.

U.S. military forces may be out of Iraq, but the unsung and unrecognized part of America’s modern military establishment is still serving and sacrificing — the role played by private military and security contractors.

That their work is dangerous can be seen by looking at the headlines. Just last Thursday a car bomb hit a private security convoy in Baghdad, killing four people and wounding at least nine others.

That is hardly an isolated incident. According to the most recent Department of Labor statistics there were at least 121 civilian contractor deaths filed on in the third quarter of 2012. Of course, these included countries besides Iraq.

There are more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan”

As the Defense Base Act Compensation blog notes, “these numbers are not an accurate accounting of Contractor Casualties as many injuries and deaths are not reported as Defense Base Act Claims. Also, many of these injuries will become deaths due to the Defense Base Act Insurance Companies denial of medical benefits.” To date, a total of 90,680 claims have been filed since September 1, 2001.

How many contractors are now serving on behalf of the U.S. government?

According to the most recent quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command, which includes both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 18 other countries stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, there were approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in its region. There were 113,376 in Afghanistan and 7,336 in Iraq. Of that total, 40,110 were U.S. citizens, 50,560 were local hires, and 46,231 were from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working.

Put simply, there are more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

These numbers, however, do not reflect the totality of contractors. For example, they do not include contractors working for the U.S. State Department. The CENTCOM report says that “of FY 2012, the USG contractor population in Iraq will be approximately 13.5K. Roughly half of these contractors are employed under Department of State contracts.”

While most of the public now understands that contractors perform a lot of missions once done by troops — peeling potatoes, pulling security — they may not realize just how dependent on them the Pentagon has become.

Moshe Schwartz, a defense expert at the Congressional Research Service testified at a congressional hearing last month:

According to DOD data, from FY2008-FY2011, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan represented 52% of the total force, averaging 190,000 contractors to 175,000 uniformed personnel. Over the last five fiscal years, DOD obligations for contracts performed just in the Iraq and Afghanistan areas of operation ($132 billion) exceeded total contract obligations of any other U.S. federal agency.

This has both benefits and costs, according to Schwartz:

Contractors can provide significant operational benefits to DOD, including freeing up uniformed personnel to conduct combat operations; providing expertise in specialized fields, such as linguistics or weapon maintenance; and providing a surge capability, quickly delivering critical support capabilities tailored to specific military needs. Because contractors can be hired when a particular need arises and let go when their services are no longer needed, in some circumstances, hiring contractors can be cheaper in the long run than maintaining a permanent in-house capability.

However, just as contractors can augment military capabilities, the ineffective use of contractors can prevent troops from receiving what they need, when they need it, and can lead to the wasteful spending of billions of dollars—dollars that could have been used to fund other operational requirements. Contractors can also undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. military and undermine operations, as many analysts believe has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the dangers, Iraq is becoming a normal country, according to Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association for the so-called “stability-operations industry.”

His group works with Iraq on visas and similar issues, which can be slow in coming due to internal sectarian strife. But it’s a big improvement from where it was several years ago. “For companies, it is a more normal practice,” he says. “Work can be a hassle, but they are not targets anymore.”

In Afghanistan, Brooks says the U.S. government is signing five-year contracts, well beyond the 2015 deadline for all U.S. combat forces to get out of the country.

The wild card is what will happen to the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), he says. President Hamid Karzai had issued an order requiring work now being done by foreign private-security contractors to hand it over to the APPF by last March. But that deadlines has been delayed — it’s now set for next March for some security contracts — to give the APPF time to get big enough to handle the workload.

Companies in Afghanistan “will have to make a decision as to whether the APPF can provide the security they need,” Brooks says. “One of the big issues is nobody knows what the future is going to look like.”

But whatever it looks like, it’s clear it’ll involve private contractors.

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a US Navy veteran, and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.