With President Obama’s announcement of the beginning of a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, attention naturally turned to the troops coming out, those remaining and how they will fare in the difficult months and years ahead. What continues to pass almost unnoticed about our presence in Afghanistan is the number of private contractors at work there supporting U.S. forces. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service there are almost as many contractors in that country as uniformed U.S. personnel (90,000 versus 99,000). When both Iraq and Afghanistan are taken together, there are more contractors (155,000) than military personnel (145,000). In addition, there are thousands more contractors in the Central Command Area of Responsibility (AOR) providing additional support for operations. The President did not mention them at all in his announcement.
The role of private contractors is usually associated with security work. For example, there is the company formerly known as Blackwater that got into trouble in Iraq several years ago but is now back under a new name with a major contract to provide security for State Department personnel once the U.S. military withdraws. However, the vast majority of private contractors are providing logistics, maintenance and support services which otherwise would have to be performed by uniformed personnel. Private contractors man the trucks that bring oil, food and supplies to our forces in Afghanistan. They man the food service facilities, laundries and personal communications networks. Equally important, they provide critical maintenance and sustainment for military vehicles such as Strykers, helicopters and vital intelligence systems. Without the support provided by tens of thousands of contractors, the U.S. military would be rendered ineffective.
The number of contractors in Afghanistan actually rose faster than the number of combat forces. A reason for this is that without their support in areas such as logistics and supply chain operations, base construction and operations, base security and maintenance, military forces could not deploy. Similarly, their numbers are likely to decline more slowly than the number of combat troops. Supplies still have to arrive in country, bases will need to be operated and maintained, and vehicles will have to be repaired.
In fact, it is possible that some categories of contractors may even increase as the drawdown progresses. Combat operations will continue and may even intensify. This means there will be an ongoing need for maintenance and repair, intelligence support and supply chain management. But among the troops being withdrawn will be those providing the same functions as some private contractors, what is called combat service support. Since the work will still need to be done, the demand on those categories of private contractors could grow and their numbers in country actually increase. In addition, withdrawing forces creates new demands for similar services as equipment is prepared for shipment out of country, bases must be closed and their contents inventoried and disposed of and continuity of operations maintained.
In addition, when surveying Central Command’s AOR there are a lot of unknowns regarding the management of equipment and the operations of forces outside Afghanistan proper. Withdrawal from Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that troops or equipment are coming all the way back to the United States. In the case of much of the equipment acquired for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan such as MRAPs, mine countermeasure systems, unmanned aerial systems and even white goods (e.g., air conditioners) it may make more sense to leave them in the region. This means that such equipment will have to be organized, repaired, maintained and managed. The U.S. Army estimates that resetting just its equipment coming out of the two wars is a process that will require billions of dollars and take years. This will be a job for private contractors.
There is no equation that establishes the number of private contractors required to support an individual soldier in Afghanistan. The experience has been that the military requires an equal or somewhat greater number of contractors as uniformed forces. Ironically, the ratio could even shift in favor of the former as the number of combat troops declines. Tens of thousands of private contractors will remain in country at least until the planned pullout date of December 2014. After that, there will be many others who will be supporting Central Command elsewhere in its area of responsibility.
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