While attention has been focused on President Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 uniformed personnel to Afghanistan, what has passed unnoticed is the fact that those new troops will be accompanied by a large “surge” in private contractors. According to recent reports, the president’s decision means that between 25,000 and 50,000 contractors will be needed to provide critical support to those additional soldiers and marines. There are nearly 100,000 contractors in Afghanistan now or one contractor for every coalition soldier. This is similar to the situation in Iraq where there were estimates of up to 160,000 private contractors working for the coalition in that country.
These contractors perform a wide range of critical functions from transportation and construction of bases, to feeding the troops and maintenance of military equipment. They represent a cross section of U.S. and international corporations including major equipment makers such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Boeing as well as service and support companies such as KBR, Dyncorp, L3 and Fluor. APL and Maersk Line perform heroic feats in moving the supplies that sustain our forces in Afghanistan by sea to Pakistan and then by road convoys through the wilds of that country to the forces in places like Kandahar and Helmand. Unlike convoys in Iraq, these companies must supply their own security when moving supplies into Afghanistan. These companies and their employees — many volunteers from the United States and other coalition countries but others hired in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — make it possible for the U.S. military to operate.
In essence, the number of personnel deployed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is twice the official statistics when private contractors are included. This means that when the Obama surge is completed, there will be nearly 200,000 U.S. sponsored personnel of all types in-country. Private contractors have suffered casualties, too. Yet, they continue to provide the services and support without which U.S. forces could not be effective.
There are those who complain about the cost of private contractors. This is a short-sighted view. It would cost much more if the United States was required to keep the same number of people in uniform at all times. Moreover, by employing private contractors, the military can take advantage of their knowledge of local conditions. The use of private contractors also provides for flexibility when it comes to shifting the focus of military operations from one region to another. Take a simple example: language training. It would be prohibitively expensive and complicated for the military to make all its people proficient in the languages spoken in prospective areas of intervention. In the last decade, this would have meant training in Serbo-Croatian, then Iraqi Arabic (and Kurdish) and now, Dari and Pashto for Afghanistan. Some language capability is desirable, but the bulk of translators will have to be civilian employees hired for a particular mission.
Private contractors are a reality of modern warfare. The Department of Defense is finally waking up to this fact and creating the policies, procedures and structures to manage the presence of thousands of civilians on the battlefield. This includes improved contracting to ensure against the kinds of problems that occurred early in the war in Iraq. For the future, whether it is the Middle East, Northeast Asia, Africa or the Arctic, expect private contractors to play a major role in this country’s wars.
Find Archived Articles: